Sit back, and all you’re supposed to hear is a polished whole. But peer at the artistry with a metaphorical magnifying glass, and the amount of detail that does into singing a 2-minute art song is staggering.
The amount of finesse and nuance is “like the fine brush strokes on a Giotto,” says Craig Rutenberg after his public masterclass for the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy at Walter Hall on Tuesday.
The Metropolitan Opera’s director of music administration, vocal coach and seasoned accompanist had just spent nearly two-and-a-half hours patiently, insightfully and gently coaching five singers and their accompanists through two German Lieder and three French mélodies at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall.
There were no grand philosophical discussions or speeches about interpretation. Nor was there any ego on display. This was all about the little things that make the difference between an okay interpretation and one that puts the listener on the proverbial edge of their seat.
It was about breathing, about the most subtle of inflections on particular vowels, the shaping of a consonant. It was also about trying to get each singer and pianist into the right headspace — both psychologically and physiologically — to make the best sounds possible.
“Breathe through your eyes; that’s your resonance,” said the coach to more than one young singer.
“Sing with your hand,” he instructed a pianist, to try and bring the accompaniment into partnership with the vocalist. The coach also referred to the piano part not as an add-on, but the singer’s “carpet of reliability.”
Above all, Rutenberg wanted the fellows to take charge of the stage, even though what they were doing was being picked apart and refashioned by the musical veteran.
He didn’t mince words as he told one singer that their performance doesn’t have enough presence. “It doesn’t start; it happens,” is how he described the song.
“Feeling self-critical about your singing?” the coach asked rhetorically at one point. “Well, get over it.”
“How many times in life do you get to take up a lot of space on stage, and people let you do it?” he added, later.
Five songs over more than two hours seems like a lot of time on not very much. But, in reality, Rutenberg was only scratching the surface. Each singer and pianist would have easily spent the whole allotted time on their one piece of music. (His work with the Academy’s fellows continues all week.)
The best part of the exercise was witnessing how, with each fresh bit of advice and insight, each of the aspiring singers was able to clearly improve their singing and their interpretation — and each of the pianists was able to add fresh support and nuance to the result.
Rutenberg knows of what he speaks, because he has done it — and continues to do it — all.
Although Rutenberg spends much of his time immersed in the world of opera, with its larger-than-life music, gestures and singing, he doesn’t think the artistic gulf is as wide as it looks.
“So much of what a Lied singer does can also apply to opera,” he says after the masterclass. “If you look at a [Tito] Gobbi, certainly [Maria] Callas, there’s detail in every syllable.”
He adds: “I think most really great opera singers know how to bring the intimacy of the song to the operatic canvas. That’s what makes them so wonderful.” Again, he reaches into the recent past, citing Renata Scotto as an example of the complete artist.
Anyone who has spent some time hanging around fans of art song and opera has heard someone say that today’s singers just don’t engage the heart quite as tightly as the previous generation of greats did.
Asked if this is a question of finesse, Rutenberg agrees, but only partially.
“There is an acceptance of many [opera] singers these days who just sing loudly and straightforwardly and then burn out rather quickly,” says the coach. That seems to be okay with a lot of the producers, because they don’t expect it, somehow.
“There are some wonderful major voices out there,” he continues. “There are quite a few singers who get away with singing slightly sharp, or slightly flat or sometimes both at the same time. They have a wonderful presence and that allows them to get away with a certain amount of murder. It’s not my idea of how the world should work, but it’s what going on right now.
“On the other hand, you have a lot of lesser-name singers who are just dying to get the finesse and the possibilities of finesse. It’s a pure delight to work with someone like that.’
Rutenberg, who has promised not to name names, makes an exception, citing German soprano Sabine Hogrefe. Her voice is not ravishingly beautiful, “but instantly recognizable,” he says.
The pianist coached her for her début in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in Regensburg this past winter. “She went at it like a big Strauss Lied,” smiles Rutenberg. “Can I do this? Is this allowed?” he mimics, with glee.
“Good for her. She worked her tushie off and had a huge success.”
Here, to show off the flair with which pianist and singer can work together is Rutenberg and Vivica Genaux, in “Madrid,” by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, in a live-to-air performance for WNYC two years ago: