ELISABETH HARRIS

Mezzo Soprano

SPRING UPDATE

Greetings from New York!

Spring-time in New York is a veritable sensory delight as the city bursts into glorious technicolor on every street corner and in every park. Seemingly unaffected by a series of nor’easter storms bringing record late snowfall accumulation to the city, the cherry blossom, daffodil fields and brightly coloured tulip plots thrive as the mercury rises, school finishes, and we move into the warmer months.

My second semester at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) has been an exhilarating experience as I learned and performed the role of Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola for the School’s main-stage opera. During the short Winter break, I spent a week familiarising myself with the score, transcribing Nico Castel’s phonetic alphabet and English translation for ease of pronunciation and understanding. This background work proved extremely beneficial as I entered the rehearsal process prepared to take the next step with the tutors and coaches in perfecting my Italian diction, and my ability to communicate in a foreign language. Prior to this Opera, I had performed many significant roles including: Cherubino - Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; Madame Larina - Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; and Orlofsky - Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. However, all these operas had been performed with an English libretto. As a result, this was my first time negotiating not only Italian recitative within an opera setting, but also the concept of playing comedy in a foreign language, and what a delight it proved to be! In preparation for this role, I worked in detail with MSM diction coaches William Tracy (Head of Opera Musical Studies) and Glenn Morton (Italian diction coach) on the pacing, delivery and style of the various recitative sections in the opera. Under the direction of Jay Lesenger (former General Director of Chautauqua Opera) and Maestro Gary Thor Wedow, I learned so much about the style, delivery, interpretation and character of comic Italian Opera and I know this will have a profound effect on my future operatic work.  

Building upon the foundation of learning from the Fall, the Spring semester concluded with a Voice Jury in which I was required to prepare six pieces for the Voice Faculty Panel. In a format identical to my entry audition two years ago, I presented a range of languages, two arias, and a contemporary piece by a living composer. As my first selection, I sang ‘Non so più’ from Le Nozze di Figaro, and in contrast, the panel chose my contemporary song, ‘Amor’ by Bolcom. I am thrilled with the final result of the Jury, in particular the comments I received from faculty members who served to confirm and support the progress I have been making in the studio of Ms Shirley Close. Together with my wonderful coach Kanae Matsumoto, Ms Close and I are continuing to work on detailing aspects of musicianship, language and characterisation to create a warmer, richer, ultimately freer sound. It feels a little scary at times to trust that my technique is there to support me, and instead focus on how I want to communicate via the text and the music, but I am excited about the possibilities of vocal nuance and colour that this is opening up to me.

I have also thoroughly enjoyed the progression of learning encapsulated within my English, Italian and Acting electives. Following on from study of the International Phonetic Alphabet in relation to American Standard pronunciation, this semester in English diction we have been working on RP British diction and Mid Atlantic dialects. It is unsurprising that I have found this much easier due to the similarities with my own accent! For RP, I have been singing repertoire by Benjamin Britten, and focussing on subtle differences between historic and modern accents. A Mid-Atlantic dialect encompasses all Oratorio works, and I have found it incredibly beneficial to further detail all of Handel’s Messiah arias for mezzo-soprano as this is an Oratorio I will sing many times over the course of my career. Complimentary to the ongoing diction work in La Cenerentola, my Italian class continued to broaden my awareness of the nuances inherent within the language as I sang recitative, arias and songs. As a result, I know I have gained an invaluable skill set for my future Italian singing. Finally, in Acting Class this semester we have been working on one of my favourite plays - Hedda Gabler by Ibsen, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare. This scene work has given me such an appreciation for how to apply theatrical acting to the operatic stage and I found I approached the role of Tisbe with a different set of objectives which proved highly successful. Alongside my Voice Jury and performance in the opera, I am pleased to report that I have received all A gradings for these classes.

Although my school workload has been more intensive this semester, I have still managed to attend a range of performances throughout the city as I strive to make the very most of all that New York has on offer. Indeed, I feel that it is imperative to assimilate all I can from artists who are just starting out, to those who are at the top of their game; because I know I have so much to learn from their singing and performances. Of particular note was Renee Fleming’s performance in Carousel - the emotive delivery of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was impeccable. On a personal level, it was also special to hear the song ‘Mr Snow’ sung in this Broadway musical. Many years ago this piece not only pulled me out of my shell as a shy teen singer, but it won me my first First Place in a singing competition and obtained me a position in the Canterbury Opera Youth programme. Continuing the theme of Cinderella, I enjoyed seeing Joyce DiDonanto in the title role of Cendrillon, and her duets with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote were mesmerizing - I’m not sure which role I would rather sing! Performances by Jonas Kaufmann in Concert at Carnegie Hall; Vittorio Grigolo in Tosca at the Met; the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; singers in The Metropolitan National Council Audition Finals; and students in a production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw directed by our very own James Rodgers at MSM were also highly memorable.

Over the summer, (it is still very surreal that summer is in June!) I will be learning the role of Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte for a programme with Mark Oswald. This will involve a concert performance in late August at Opera America in New York. I am delighted to have yet another opportunity to learn a role at the heart of standard mezzo-soprano repertoire and am very much looking forward to applying all I have learned to date, whilst gaining new skills in the rehearsal and performance process. In addition to ongoing lessons and coachings, I will be making a start on learning new repertoire for my upcoming final recital, as it is important to get a head start on what promises to be yet another learning and performance packed second year at the Manhattan School of Music.

Once again I would like to extend my deepest thanks to you all for your ongoing support, interest and investment in my singing career. In a myriad of ways, you have facilitated my incredible journey here in New York; one which is continually broadening my horizons as a singer, performer and musician.  I am so excited for all that the future holds as I continue to strive for excellence in my studies and move into auditioning and beyond.

Gratefully,

Elisabeth x

CHRISTMAS & HOLIDAY GREETINGS

Currently in the midst of an arctic polar blast, I am writing to you all from a particularly chilly New York; a far cry indeed from the beautiful weather I experienced recently during my fleeting pre-Christmas trip to sing Handel’s Messiah with Auckland Choral. However, this epistle begins slightly earlier, around the end of the Fall and the arrival of the festive holiday spirit, which cloaks New York’s landscape in sparkling lights and glistening trees from Thanksgiving until after the New Year.

My first semester at the Manhattan School of Music has been a whirlwind of experiences, so immersive and comprehensive. I was fortunate enough to receive a position not only in Dona Vaughn’s Opera Workshop - a special class which meets twice weekly and is centred around the Art of Auditioning; but also in the school’s Opera Scene programme in which I was cast as Mrs Meg Page in Verdi’s Falstaff Act III, Scene II, and as the cover of Iphigénie in the opening scene of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.

Previously the Stage Director and Acting Coach for The Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and now serving as the Artistic Director of Opera at MSM, Ms Vaughn’s classes have been a wonderful opportunity to learn about the operatic scene in America whilst practicing ‘auditioning.’ For classes we would be required to prepare an operatic aria, or art song in Italian, French, German or English whilst wearing audition attire. Following our performance, we were required to present a direct word-for-word translation of the song, and also discuss various character and plot elements where appropriate. Comment would then be passed as to the suitability of the attire and hairstyle; choice of repertoire; quality of one’s speaking voice; use of gestures or facial expression; and collaboration with the accompanist. Working with Ms Vaughn has been a real highlight of my semester at MSM, and I feel that I have gained so much insight into not only the art-form, but also the whole business that is Opera in the 21st Century.

Another noteworthy element of the Fall Semester has been MSM’s Opera Scene programme. This year we presented in concert a scene from each of the following: Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier; Ned Rorem’s A Childhood Miracle; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride; and Verdi’s Falstaff. Whilst the role of Iphigénie can be sung by either a soprano or a mezzo, it has been performed by the likes of Marilyn Horne, Susan Graham and Elīna Garanča, and it provided me with an opportunity to work on my upper passaggio as well as on my French diction in a detailed and comprehensive manner.  Comparatively, singing in the Falstaff scene really honed my musicianship skills; particularly in the final fugue section as the harmony is so polyphonic one has to be assuredly confident because it is impossible to hear anything at all!  For those who are not familiar with this work, this clip from the Metropolitan Opera production is worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvFyDeOwMtY. For the scene work at MSM, we were given individual sessions with accompanists and language coaches before finally working with a conductor and director that the school specially brought in for the staging calls and performances. The sheer amount of attention to detail that goes into each scene resulted in a very polished concert, and I was pleased to receive a mention in Meche Kroop’s review which described my role as ‘well sung.’ A full account can be found at: http://www.vocedimeche.reviews/2017/11/finale-from-falstaff-performed-by.html

Graduate school in America does take a little getting used to, as in addition to being selected for performance opportunities and working on one’s technique, you are required to attend many compulsory classes.  These include theory and aural skills – in the latter I have been required to learn a whole new method of reading music as the Americans do not think of notes with regard to their note name, but rather in terms of solfege - do, re, mi!  Most valuable have been my Italian and English diction classes. In Italian I have been focussing on perfecting my vowel shapes and sounds within bel canto repertoire whilst also adding more scuro (darkness) to balance out the well-developed chiaro (brightness) in my voice.  In English, I have so enjoyed working with renowned diction coach Kathryn La Bouff and I have spent the semester learning the International Phonetic Alphabet with regard to American Standard pronunciation.  At times this has been a little tricky, as my neutral sound tends more toward British, so I have had to learn how to ‘hear’ American sounds.  This coming semester we will be moving on to Mid-Atlantic and British diction pronunciation.  In both these classes there are many opportunities to bring in repertoire and I am finding it so beneficial to have input about my singing, technique and language from such a range of teachers and coaches on a daily basis.  

I have also taken part in the Advanced Acting course in which we have been working on scenes from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.  It is wonderful learning about acting techniques within the theatre and how to apply these directly to Opera and these classes have helped to more consciously make choices about character, movement, delivery and interaction.  In the spring, I am looking forward to working on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Finally, I have attended Movement classes each week and these have been a real high-point of my time at school.  As a mezzo soprano I am required to learn both male and female dance steps and often it will depend on the number of women in the class as to whether or not I join their ranks or the other side!  In this class we have learned the Waltz, the Polka, and the Minuet, and this semester we will be moving on to the Gavotte and Mazurka.  Although I did participate in the odd dance class in New Zealand, I have never had the chance to work specifically on dance forms with relation to opera, or had a teacher who has understood that opera singers are not always the most coordinated of movers, so it has been such a fantastic opportunity to learn these important steps in a relaxed environment.  I am so pleased to report that I have now received grades for most of these classes and apart from Theory and Aural (in which I obtained B grades), I have received all A gradings.

In the middle of the semester I transitioned to the singing studio of Ms Shirley Close.  Ms Close is a new teacher on faculty this year and has had an international career firstly as a mezzo-soprano and more recently as a dramatic soprano.  I am thrilled to say that this has been a most successful move and I am extremely happy with all that I am learning under Ms Close’s tutelage.  At the moment our focus is on really releasing the breath to create an uninterrupted legato sound with purely executed vowels, whilst keeping the larynx and the body as relaxed as possible.  I am aware this is an ongoing process, but I am delighted with how my sound is already freeing up and it is so interesting gaining further insight into the intricacies of my voice as a whole.

In the spring semester, MSM will be presenting Rossini’s La Cenerentola as their main-stage opera at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre in New York.  Before the holidays, and during our busy week of finals, (in which I later flew to New Zealand for the Messiah) we had auditions and call-backs in which I sang the beautiful ‘All afflitto è dolce il pianto’ from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.  I am over the moon to have been cast in the role of Tisbe (one of the step-sisters) and I am so looking forward to learning it and perfecting my coloratura.  

As mentioned at the start of this update, I recently flew to New Zealand to sing the Alto part in Handel’s Messiah with the Auckland Choral Society.  Although there was a brief hiccup of my luggage (and dress!) temporarily remaining at Houston airport, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Uwe Grodd and the other soloists, and was most impressed with the standard of the choir and orchestra.  After singing predominantly higher repertoire this semester, it felt so wonderful to return to my lower register and re-technique this work and I felt so privileged to be a part of this very special opportunity.  Here is a review from William Dart at the Auckland Herald: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11964587.

New York City has a smorgasbord of world class opera and concert events, available on a nightly basis, and I have been making the most of my student discount for the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall.  It has been amazing to hear and see singers that I have merely admired from afar - such as Vittorio Grigolo; Sondra Radvanovsky; Joyce Di Donato; and Susan Graham, in stunning and very diverse productions of Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Norma and The Merry Widow.  Another standout performance (which included live sheep!) was the United States premiere of Thomas Adès’ Exterminating Angel - a masterpiece of dramatic and musical delights in contemporary form.  I have also really enjoyed the performances of Canadian virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin and violinist Janine Jansen at Carnegie Hall, a production of Time and the Conways on Broadway, and a modern adaptation of Hedda Gabler.  Later in January, I am terribly excited to be hearing Jonas Kaufmann at Carnegie Hall!  In New Zealand, I used to attend Met Live in HD Opera performances, and I found it such an amazing way to watch and learn from those at the very top of this field.  However, actually living in a city where I can attend these performances live is even more thrilling and I find myself assimilating at a much deeper level.

As we welcome in another New Year, I want to take some time to reflect on all that 2017 held and I feel so immensely grateful to each and every one of you for your unique and special support which is enabling me to live this dream of studying in and experiencing New York City. This incredible opportunity is shaping me further as a singer and musician, as I strive to learn all I possibly can in the desire to develop my artistry to the highest level.

I wish you all a very joyous 2018,

Elisabeth x