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Master class with Maestra Nelly

 

Text and photos by ELIZABETH LOLARGA

Miricioiu pulls the hands of Mariel Tuason.
Miricioiu pulls the hands of Mariel Tuason.

THE historic First Intensive Vocal Workshop of soprano Nelly Miricioiu ran for three days (March 9-11), seven hours long each day, with brief lunch and coffee breaks in between, at the Ayala Museum. It has more than prepared the 14 participants for international opera stages. It has also strengthened their will to make it, relaxed and corrected a lot of tight muscles and postures and gave them an approach to life that is lightened by humor and spirituality, not weighed down by ego, vanity or narcissism.

From the get go she put everyone at ease, including members of the audience (some laypersons went there for three days in a row), by saying, “I don’t bite.” Neither does she snarl or scold. On the last day when sopranos Em Alcantara and Mariel Tuason were doing a duet, she’d interrupt them to remind them to stand shoulder to shoulder and go close to them to whisper some instructions that the audience couldn’t overhear even if they strained. There is no public shaming.

When a cell phone rang despite reminders to turn them off while the class was going on, Miricioiu, who turns 63 at the end of this month, turned around quickly to say, “We’re not home!” There was sternness in the voice, but the humor wasn’t lost on the crowd.

Examining almost like an EENT the mouth and jaw muscles of tenor Nomher Nival, with Farley Asuncion on the piano.
Examining almost like an EENT the mouth and jaw muscles of tenor Nomher Nival, with Farley Asuncion on the piano.

In private moments before the class opened (she always came an hour early ahead of everyone else), she said, “With artists, there is a drama about us, and the universe can’t do anything about it!”

When she first saw Master Class, the Terence McNally play about Maria Callas, she cried buckets when she heard the line the actress, playing the diva, said as she addressed the audience, “You people don’t know what we go through!” The tears were for all artists’ lives, including Miricioiu’s own, because, she said, “passion is a burning thing, an active energy.”

At her own master class, she also showed ways on how this openness to emotions and vulnerability can be properly disciplined so that the music’s interpreter doesn’t go to the deep end. At the same time they can still give their best at every performance, no matter the acoustic conditions of any hall.

Head squeeze for Stephanie Aguilar
Head squeeze for Stephanie Aguilar

She calls herself trained in the old school of operatic singing, but still she believes that there are no hard rules and laws to train a voice. She said, “Your voice is God’s gift so you must treat it with great care, passion and hard work. A good voice is in our bodies, and the body is our box, unlike the pianists and cellists whose instruments are outside. We have inside us that machine that we can train tremendously to a high standard. It’s a curse and a cross that we carry with us, and we carry it to the end of our careers.”

She told her students, who each had 20-25 minutes of her time each day, to “always believe that you have done your best and you love what you’re doing. We have to have a degree of madness to be able to go onstage and give them (the audience) something through our vocality. We can do it if we connect to the music, to why those notes were written there.”

Miricioiu said the three days she was spending with the participants still weren’t enough. “I can give no solutions in three days. I can barely open a door, but I can at least try.”

The classes were like gentle, commonsensical reminders to the singers especially that they are human, too. She said, “We actually learn more serious things at our moments of difficulty. As your career progresses, you will be dealing with the atmosphere, with dust, jet lag, the quality of food so treat your instrument with kindness. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t drink, don’t have sex.’ Keep everything at a balance.”

Miricioiu lets baritone Zip de Guzman feel the space between her chin and throat.
Miricioiu lets baritone Zip de Guzman feel the space between her chin and throat.

At the end of each day, it all boiled down to a discipline of the mind and the soul, to being selfish sometimes by protecting oneself from critics because “every emotion makes our throat react.”

Farley Asuncion and Gabriel Allan Paguirigan, the repetiteurs at the master classes who alternated on the piano for certain singers, were just as admiring of the teacher.

Asuncion, who was at Miricioiu’s March 6 concert, said, “I love the fact that the timbre of her voice has some similarities to Maria Callas. I’ve always been a big Callas fan, but watching her live in that wonderful recital of hers and Najib Ismail’s taught everyone what the word ‘diva’ really means—a true servant of her art, filled with genuine humility and generosity. I particularly loved the first half of the program and the rarities that she premiered such as the Chopin-Viardot songs.”

As for Miricioiu as teacher, he said, “I have a huge admiration for teachers who are able to bring out a huge difference in sound/interpretation in a student using simple instructions. Most of the time it looks easy to do, but then you realize that this ability to see the forest for the trees, to always see the bigger picture and give new perspective to students can only come from someone who has decades of experience in the field.”

The older and younger sopranos take off their shoes and whirl while Bernadette Mamauag sings her lines, another way of loosening her up.
The older and younger sopranos take off their shoes and whirl while Bernadette Mamauag sings her lines, another way of loosening her up.

He also admired the students (apart from Alcantara and Tuason, there were sopranos Myramae Tapia Meneses, Millicent Lao, Iona Ventocilla, Jamie Sampana, Bernadette Mamauag, mezzo soprano Krissan Manikan Tan, tenors Nomher Nival and Ivan Niccolo Nery and baritone Zip de Guzman.). He described them as “always eager to act like a ‘sponge’ and just be open-minded to try things out, have a new perspective. They always end up benefitting more from the class.”

As for his own role in the classes, he said, “There is always anxiety when you just get your copies of the scores a day before or the day itself. Some singers decided to change their arias at the last minute, but this has always been a part of the job. I take comfort in the fact that I can also learn a lot from every instruction and collaboration. I enjoy exploring all the nuances of instrumentation in all the orchestral reductions. At the end of the day, it always helps to think that ‘this is not about me but the music.’”

For his part, Paguirigan said of Miricioiu, “She’s good at connecting with the audience. Everything she sings takes a life of its own. I also like her sense of humor. That’s why Filipinos love her, but she is really strict. She is very detailed and makulit. When she doesn’t like something, she will have it repeated over and over until the student gets it. Her patience is incredible.”

In the beginning, he was anxious because “this is The Nelly Miricioiu who was going to listen to us. There were times I was so worried because I had to sight-read the accompaniments. It turned out she is really a super-nice person so my worry disappeared.”

“Opera Gala” features the 14 participants in Ms. Miricoiu’s master class on March 14 (Bellini night) and March 21 (Donizetti night) at 7 p.m. at the Ayala Museum lobby. Tickets at P1,000 each are available at the gate with discounts of 20 per cent for senior citizens and 50 per cent for students.