ELISABETH HARRIS

Mezzo Soprano

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