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Singing contemporary repertoire and finding the right expression
“Makrabey! Makrabey! Makrabey! Makrabey! Coming! Coming! Look there!” Gepopo’s fear and paranoid hysteria make it difficult to understand his warning. Even in the first rehearsal, Aleksandra Stankovic is very convincing as the chief of the secret police in Györgi Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, arguably one of the most difficult contemporary pieces she could have chosen. The artistic director of the workshop, Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu, is clearly impressed: “Vivacissimo isterico, I love it. And now in German, please. We are in Munich.” But the 25-year-old soprano from Belgrade wants everything to be perfect, not only because of the singer whose interpretation is the standard for everyone else. She knows: “Barbara Hannigan would do it faster.” Topi Lehtipuu reminds her of the aim of the workshop: “It is a learning process. Most singers will have to repeat it at least 20 times. No matter if it’s only ten bars, we do it properly. Just concentrate on how to learn.”
In the 5-day enoa workshop What does contemporary mean? – Singing contemporary music with Topi Lehtipuu at the Theaterakademie August Everding in Munich, the participants are examining contemporary pieces and comparing them to arias by Mozart. Whereas the first part of the workshop focused on the question why Mozart was “modern” in his time period, the second part is looking for criteria defining “classical” in contemporary music; the singers are learning about the parallels between classical and modern singing techniques, style and expression. In order to develop a more general understanding of contemporary music, each student – nine singers from eight different countries – had to prepare one piece from the second part of the 20th century and an aria by Mozart with a technical similarity. In addition to lectures and masterclasses with all participants, the students also have individual musical coachings with Topi Lehtipuu.
The 46-year-old tenor, internationally renowned for repertoire ranging from old music through Mozart to contemporary composers, wants the participants to understand what is contemporary and how to learn it: “I always felt that the expressions in Mozart’s operas are very contemporary. It is nice to pair these two worlds and to see that they are actually not so far from each other.”
Because the students had prepared the contemporary pieces so well, it was even possible to use them to learn certain technical aspects in the Mozart pieces. “It was very funny; we sometimes found exactly the same kind of passages. It was also good to see that in the contemporary pieces you can find very conventional or Mozart-like things.”
In his opinion, young singers are not generally afraid of contemporary music: “It depends on their musical education. There are many singers who are afraid of singing Mozart. People are always afraid of the things they don’t know.”
Aleksandra Stankovic agrees: “I was afraid because there are too many things in that piece by Ligeti, too much rhythm, too much melody, too much text, and intervals, jumping, screaming… I thought it was too much for me. But Topi told me that we are here to “learn how to learn”. He helped me to find that easy way to learn, and now I feel much more comfortable.” Her concern before the final performance is different now: “I am not afraid of the piece any more. Actually, I am afraid of myself because I never know what kind of emotion I have in that moment. If it is crazy, I think it would be good for Ligeti.”
Tenor Piotr Maciejowski (26) from Warsaw remembers his first contact with modern music very well: “It was about five years ago when I was studying at the Academy. We sang Moses and Aron by Schönberg and it was extremely difficult for me. It is not only about the technique, it is also about the colour of voice and what is written between the lines, what the composer wanted. But then I fell in love with this kind of music. When I am singing modern music, I can be completely free. I can do what I want and it is a new way to express my soul. ”
One day before the final concert, he feels that his contemporary piece, Canzone Gennarino by Hans Werner Henze, is still in process. “I’m not sure about all the tones yet. But that’s ok, I have one more lesson with Topi, so that’s enough.” Even though he is very busy, the young singer still finds some free time to work on his Ph.D. thesis about Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky: He has to hand in the first chapter that same week.
Natalya Boeva, mezzo-soprano from St. Petersburg, does not have a lot of free time this week. In addition to her solo pieces, she and her colleague Kathrin Zukowski (both are first year master students at the Theaterakademie August Everding) are also participating in the workshop as a duo. They decided to do it because of the “nice contrast” between the two sisters in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and in Tri sestri by Peter Eötvös, a contemporary piece that was done at the Theaterakademie a few years ago. As opposed to Natalya who has already sung many contemporary pieces – including the first ever performance in Russia of Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau sans maître – in St. Petersburg and Moscow, it is a completely new experience for Kathrin to sing contemporary music: “This is a whole new world for me. I had never really done contemporary music before, and then in this piece there is everything at once: Sprechgesang, every effect you can imagine, every emotion – it was a really good school.”
They also experienced the advantage of singing the work of a composer who is still alive. When they were trying to figure out how adequate the pitch had to be in the score, Topi Lehtipuu simply called the composer: “Eötvös told him you first have to try out adequately and very precisely in the pitch, and then you just let go, you let your emotions flow when you are singing. He is even open for proposals – when a singer is doing something he likes, it can happen that he writes it down and makes it the new composition.”
On the last day of the workshop, Natalya Boeva has four different rehearsals: the two duets, her contemporary solo piece from Greek by Anthony Turnage, the aria “Parto, parto” from La clemenza di Tito, and the role of the conductor in I hate Mozart, Bernhard Lang’s provocatively named parody of the opera business that sets the frame for the final concert. Topi Lehtipuu jokingly suggests to borrow the conducting stick from Ivor Bolton who is rehearsing in the Prinzregententheater next door, but this particular role does not require a lot of acting skills from her: She also holds a degree in choral conducting. In the last individual rehearsal, her amazing performance of Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto” is so convincing that Topi Lehtipuu tells her she could go on stage and do it the very next day.
Topi Lehtipuu is very impressed with the vocal quality of all participants: “They are just fantastic singers. That is a very good starting point, so the main subject here is expression – with a very large definition including musical, theatrical and textual expression.” In a masterclass every evening, the singers present to the others what they did in their individual lessons that day. Kathrin Zukowski is happy about this opportunity: “We all had the chance to get to know what the others did in their lessons and that’s why I really heard everyone singing. So that was a very nice idea.” Natalya Boeva adds: “I have learned a lot from my colleagues, but I always do. It is very interesting, everybody is so talented and well-prepared. When I see some of the things they do, maybe I will also try them.”
They agree on the most important thing they have learned in the workshop: “Emotion. And the freedom to invent something with this emotional feeling, to choose different kinds of sound and to be free with this invention. No matter if it is contemporary or Mozart. “
In the individual coaching sessions with each singer, Topi Lehtipuu takes the time to talk about their future repertoire and asks them where they want to be in five or ten years from now. He suggests possible mentors, tells everyone to build on their strength and tells them to raise the level on the theatrical side: “This is the next phase, always look for the expression behind the music.” He describes his method of teaching as demanding and also encouraging: “You need to have both of these elements in good balance. Perfectionism can be a very good thing – if it does not become too important in the sense that it becomes a self-destructing element.” When some of the singers are starting to be too harsh on themselves, he tells them to forget about the mistake and keep going: “Just turn the page and continue.”
Even though he is teaching seven or eight hours every day, he does not seem to get tired. “What is fun is that you give the lesson and you always get the energy from the situation, from the music and from the students. You can come there completely “dead”, and after the lesson you will feel refreshed. So that is a source of energy.”
Even at the end of the final concert, he is still thinking about teaching. As the audience doesn’t want to leave after the encore – the students only learned Anton Weberns Dies ist ein Lied für dich allein in the lecture the day before –, he tells them: “If you don’t go home soon, we will teach you a contemporary piece.”