2014 Master of Music (Opera Performance)
Horti Hall. Victoria Street, Melbourne
Saturday 1 March 2014
It was the socks. A touch of irony, a tiny statement of independence: ‘I’m not your average self-effacing accompanist,’ they said. There’s fun to be had in classical music, even in opera. And like the best of jokes, it was subtle – only visible when he sat at the piano. A Tardis motif on the top of his black socks peeped out from his black trouser cuffs. Classical musicians (ladies) are expected to wear colour – the more startling the better. Classical musicians (gentlemen) are expected to wear black unless they are forced to wear white tie and tails circa 1950 (actually more like circa 1913). Classical musicians (gentlemen, wicked) wear lurid paisley or tartan socks or a thin tartan tie swiped from their grandfather. Just a little protest against convention, you understand.
The ‘he’ was Simon Bruckard and he is a very rare bird indeed: one of eight young graduate musicians selected from a field of 70 applicants as the second intake of Victorian Opera’s Master of Music program. He, more unusually, is a repetiteur. He has a dry sense of humour. He will need it. The occasion was their first student recital and he was associate artist with seven singers.
He (the pianist) and them (the singers) face two years of very intensive singing coaching, Italian language study, diction training in French, English, German and Russian – with exams – and opera stage-craft. And just in case they get a role in The Magic Pudding, puppetry. Towards the end they’ll be put through the wringer of a master class with Australia’s Wagnerian soprano great, Lisa Gasteen. I first saw her singing sfortzando (very, very loud) no microphone, flat on her back in a huge, circular gas oven towards the end of Gotterdammerung, the last opera in the Adelaide Ring Cycle. It was hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff.
When she’s teaching senior students Ms Gasteen gives absolutely no quarter. Elizabeth, one of her former students, a Queensland Con. graduate, told me she’s a gentle sweetie. When I saw taking a master class in 2013 it was more like Attila the Hun-sweetie.
Kate Amos has positioned herself well with a diploma in Italian – and study in Italy – a rich soprano voice and an ability to sing - and act - the coquettish, strong-willed maiden in Don Pasquale.
Nathan Lay, whose wicked grin would have got him out of most trouble in class, already has a swag of prizes and major roles in opera. His voice has settled into a rich baritone. It's clear that he has the voice and the temperament to play Billy Bluegum in The Pudding. Typecast? Not a bit. His beautiful singing of Sir Riccardo Forth's “Oh! Forever I have lost you“ in I Purtani says otherwise.
Cristina Russo describes herself as an Italo-Australian soprano. She – BA, B Mus (Italian) – settled, eyes flashing, into Il barbeier di Siviglia as if she’d been born to it. Simply beautiful; simply spectacular.
Matthew Tng has already gathered a collection of prestigious awards. He has performed a heap of roles in recent VO productions and covered Chou En Lai in VO’s 2013 Nixon in China. He's walked away with lots of prizes and awards and has been involved in high-level master classes. It shows. His singing of Fritz's yearning dance song from Die Tote Stadt was superb. There is a lyric baritone to watch.
Michael Petruccelli had to deal with the problem of what to do during a soliloquy (not very much; keep your hands still, Michael) in Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin. He had that most difficult of singing problems – a long piano note – under control though. Singing a loud high note is relatively easy but maintaining power in the production of pianissimo at the end of a phrase is a killer.
Emma Muir-Smith has the most wonderful mezzo voice and she knows how to user it. Her aria from Faust was simply superb. No histrionics, no ‘look at me’ stuff. She simply let the music take its course by acting as if she wasn’t acting.
Elizabeth Lewis had it organised. She also had the long, descending scales towards the end of her La Cenerentola aria well-organised even if she does have a problem with a single note in the transition from head to chest voice on the way down. She was one of only two singers who told us that 'she and Simon' – Michael was the other – 'were going to perform'. The others were, presumably, singing alone.
Be nice to your associate artist, boys and girls. It’s said he can make or break you. In truth he can just break you. He slows your long phrase by five percent, you run out of puff two long notes before the end of the phrase. “But we rehearsed it like that didn’t we?” all innocence. Of course any pianist who wears Dr Who socks is innocent, yes?