'Loosen up,' advises renowned diva

March 01, 1992|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

Leontyne Price had one bit of advice before she sat down to critique six voice students yesterday at Morgan State University: "Relax, I am not the phantom, but the friend."

But to Mishael Miller, one of the students chosen to perform and receive instruction from the supreme soprano, his 20-minute stint in front of Miss Price was the highlight of his brief operatic career.

"She is definitely the mother of all divas," the 21-year-old Morgan junior said before his performance.

On stage with the students yesterday, the renowned and revered singer gave only glimpses of the opera career that has spanned more than three decades and netted 19 Grammy Awards.

She hugged and kissed and yelled "Brava" to students, as she tried to make them as comfortable singing on stage as they are when alone in the music rehearsal rooms.

"As much as I love applause, this is not about me today but about this galaxy of young talent," Miss Price said.

Occasionally, the rich, lush voice perhaps best known for the arias song by Lenore in "Il trovatore" blended easily with the students' voices.

Miss Price's appearance at Morgan was to teach a vocal master class, one of only four such classes that she has ever allowed, and her first in more than three years, according to Morgan officials.

The class was open to college and high school voice students from throughout the Baltimore area, but only six students were chosen to perform and receive her instruction.

To many voice students, Miss Price is the "Stradivarius of singers" and one of the female idols of opera.

Nathan Carter, the Morgan music director, said Miss Price came to Morgan because of the way school officials treated her when she performed at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall two years ago.

"She's paying us back. She's making a statement here," Dr. Carter said. "She is not only teaching the students on stage, but she's teaching the music and voice teachers."

Onstage, Miss Price chided an obviously nervous Mr. Miller to relax as he sung in a full baritone from the German opera "Ich grolle nicht" by Robert Schumann.

"Handsome man, handsome voice, handsome public," she said. "Loosen up. Your singing begins with the first note, not when you come in."

Mr. Miller said he ran a couple of miles yesterday to keep his adrenalin high. After his performance, he said he was soaked with nervous perspiration.

"At first I had the impression that she was going to tear me apart and say I'm never going to be an opera singer," he said. "But it wasn't like that. I looked at her as someone who would help."

However, he agreed with Miss Price that he was stiff and tense while singing.

"She put a lot of emphasis on style, diction and nuances," Mr. Miller said.

"It was good to hear someone else say the same thing [as his instructors at Morgan]. She said loosen. Let go."

Miss Price, who studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and has performed around the world, asked nearly all of the students who sang yesterday to simply relax and be expressive while singing.

The idea, she said, was to set the scene with the voice, as though it is painting a verbal picture for their audience.

"See the most beautiful picture you can see -- vocally and physically," Miss Price said. "The master classes are to tone, to bridge the gap from the studio. Singing is not laborious. Delivering music to other human beings is fun. Play with a song a little bit. Don't be so stiff."

Soprano Kishna Davis, who graduated from Morgan last year and is studying voice at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, performed a selection from "Madama Butterfly."

After her aria, Miss Price labeled Miss Davis' voice "juicy," but said the performance would be much better with gestures and more feeling.

"At first you're scared because you want to do well," Miss Davis said. "But then you see that she wants perfection in singing, and everything she said makes sense. Out there she was like a mother to me. She was like the diva of the universe, and I was like a baby in her arms."

Miss Davis, who hopes to follow in Miss Price's footsteps someday, said she was not intimidated by Miss Price, but had a dry throat for several hours before her performance.

"I must have had 30 glasses of water this morning, and I'm still thirsty," Miss Davis said. "This is the dream of every singer to get a chance to be up there with her. She was with me the entire time, singing with me and helping me."

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