FOR AUDIENCES, master classes are a wonderful opportunity to hear polished performances and learn something about what goes into making them -- without ever having to practice scales and trills oneself.
So I was delighted to attend a master class given at Peabody last week by world-renowned soprano Diana Soviero, who will sing the title role of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" for the Baltimore Opera Company's production that opens Thursday.
Soviero has sung "Butterfly" in all of the world's great opera houses. She was joined at the master class by her husband, Bernard Uzan, who is stage-directing the BOC's "Butterfly."
For the young artists who participate in a master class, it's a chance to put their skills on the line, with their efforts painstakingly and publicly dissected by acknowledged masters. Most remember the experience as a nearly indescribable mixture of awe, inspiration and humility.
I was pleased to hear again one of the participants in particular: 26-year-old Byung-Soon Lee, a Korean- born soprano who was a finalist last spring in the Metropolitan Opera Vocal Competition in New York.
Lee sings like an angel, but that didn't deter Soviero and Uzan from systematically deconstructing her performance of a Bellini aria, both vocally and dramatically.
"The days when a singer could simply plant him- or herself on stage and sing the notes are over," Uzan said during an interview before the class.
"We live in a video age, where performers need to be able to not just sing the part, but act it as well," Soviero added.
Most of the time Soviero and Uzan spent with Lee was devoted to developing a sense of the character Bellini had created.
"Amina is a very unstable girl, mentally she is not well balanced, so the smallest shock is capable of tipping her over the edge," Uzan explained. "One minute she's in her right mind, then 14 bars later she's lost it. That's what this aria is about; that's what I want to hear."
Unlike the students onstage, audiences at a master class can concentrate on the musical insights of the masters without worrying about pesky technical details like breathing and vocal placement.
In fact, when you have a combination of great teachers like Soviero and Uzan, and a student virtuoso like Lee, the problem of instrumental technique hardly even figures; it is completely secondary to the musical insights imparted.
Still, both Soviero and Uzan believe that young singers today often don't get the proper technical foundation before launching their careers. Young singers are pushed to do difficult roles too early in their careers, with the result that they burn out faster.
"You really have to develop yourself slowly as a singer," Soviero says. "It requires a lot of study, a lot of training and experience. I did a lot of singing in small houses when I was young. I went on tours, I didn't go directly to the Met. All that time I was learning how to control myself, how to sleep on the road, to exercise. It's like being an athlete; in fact, we are athletes in certain respects."
Certainly "Butterfly," which has become Soviero's signature role, is one of the most physically taxing roles in the repertoire. The opera is three hours long and Butterfly is on stage nearly all of that time. Plus the music is technically forbidding.
"When Puccini wrote 'Butterfly,' he wrote all the dangers that arise in singing into his score," Soviero says. "He writes a subito piano [sudden soft passage] right before an explosion on high A-flat; B-natural explosions; subito pianissimi on B-flat after you've just exploded on an F or an A "
Soviero pauses for a moment, as if words fail to convey the extraordinary difficulty of the composer's music.
"It's this kind of control and intelligence that you have to find to sing the role," she says. "If you do it too young, it can ruin your technique. It's like learning to drive. You would never put a beginner in a sports car that went 200 miles an hour."
Soviero and her husband have established a workshop in Florida to train young artists in the old school. This year they received more than 400 applications for the eight slots they had available.
"We have had a method of learning and working that I think is lacking in teaching today," Soviero says. "Technique and method are a lost art. Too many students are floundering in situations where they don't know where to put their attention and concentration."
Soviero empathizes with the younger generation's impatience because she was impatient, too, just starting out.
"When I was a student I used to carry the score of 'Butterfly' around and put it on my teacher's piano," she recalled. "One day she finally said, 'All right, let's go through it, I want to show you how difficult it really is.'
"Halfway through and I was in tears," Soviero says. "I would be crying -- I was so taken up with the emotion of the role.