Bergonzi in China
World-renowned tenor and master teacher Carlo Bergonzi shared his Bel Canto expertise in a series of master classes in China last summer. Joanna Lee was there, and gives CS a full report.
by Joanna C. Lee
Since the arrival of the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi in Beijing on Aug. 7, 2005, Chinese opera lovers have fallen head over heels for Italian Bel Canto. Bergonzi, known worldwide as “the tenor Verdi dreamt of,” was in the Chinese capital until Aug. 20 as host and maestro at the inaugural 2005 Bel Canto International Masterclass, held at the Central Conservatory of Music right outside the old Beijing city walls.
Bergonzi took his job seriously, and the quality Bel Canto singing started off on a
high note. The evening before the inaugural master class, New York-based operatic bass Tian Haojiang (a former student of Bergonzi and the mastermind behind the master class) performed operatic highlights, accompanied by the China National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Li Xincao. at the Beijing Concert Hall.
The next day, Bergonzi began hearing eight students per day in the Central Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, before a public audience including numerous highly respected Chinese voice teachers, as well as their students. Everyone was enthralled by Bergonzi's ability to communicate the technique and art of Bel Canto, and perhaps even more enthralled by his boundless energy and sense of humor. His teaching was peppered with lively examples and expressive gestures, a refreshing experience for students and audience alike. Whenever Bergonzi sang a phrase as part of a demonstration, the audience applauded.
Each young singer sang two arias in each of their sessions, and Bergonzi meticulously corrected their diction, breathing, and especially their phrasing.
"You have to express to your audience your love of heaven, earth, and the blue skies," he told one of the tenors. explaining that his aria should be more in the mood of a prayer than an admonition.
All the participants had the opportunity to sing a total of three times more for Bergonzi throughout the master class, and their repertoire ranged from Gluck's Orfeo, to Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, all phases of Verdi, and Puccini. The singers also received individual coaching from Linda Hall and Gareth Morrell, two eminent coaches from the Metropolitan Opera.
The 2005 Bel Canto Masterclass accepted a total of 24 students, who went through numerous rounds of tape and live auditions. The group included both graduate and undergraduate students, as well as a few with active careers in China's opera theaters.
This marked Bergonzi's first visit to China, and he was truly delighted.
"In my long career of 53 years, this is the only country I have not visited until now. It is good luck to come into this beautiful city, to have met so many nice people, to be received so well, and to hear such big beautiful voices!" exclaimed the maestro. The organizers at Bel Canto International, a U.S.-based company that underwrites and co-hosts the event along with the Chinese Musicians Association and the Central Conservatory of Music, have arranged long afternoon breaks, during which Bergonzi took in a bit more of the city sights.
"What I have seen of Beijing so far is truly beautiful," was one of his many enthusiastic remarks regarding his stay in this ancient city.
At the end of the first day of classes, a dinner was held in honor of Bergonzi, and all 24 singers gathered to present their own "Chinese Bel Canto," in a chorus of classic Chinese art songs.
"This is the first time I have heard Chinese vocal music.The melodies are very expressive and well-composed." said Bergonzi. "Also, they have shown me how expressive and passionate these young singers are."
Bergonzi was very impressed by the quality of talent he worked with in Beijing. He repeatedly thanked the teachers for giving the students a solid technique and preparing them well for the master class. One thing he made special mention of, however, was the need to perfect their training in the Italian language.
"These young singers know some Italian, but they occasionally need to be corrected in their phrasing. Italian is a tricky language: How do you sing double consonants properly without overdoing them?" Bergonzi explained. Getting every single one of the vowels right was Bergonzi's mission for all of his singers. Getting a pure "u" and "o" when singing "fuomo" distinguishes a good singer from a fantastic singer, Bergonzi explained.
This zeal to create the perfect Bel Canto struck a chord with his audience, even on the first day of Bergonzi's classes. A standing ovation greeted the maestro when he appeared for the first time on stage, equipped with bottled water and a towel to wipe away the sweat of his hard work. Walking to and fro on stage incessantly, Bergonzi was always animated, rarely sitting down to take any breaks. Bergonzi's occasional demonstrations were magnificent, singing perfect phrasing with utmost taste and refinement, and playing the role of master teacher with aplomb.
"Do not push your long notes, do not push your breath," warned Bergonzi many times during the two weeks. Singers often get so excited and nervous about performing in public that they overexert their voices, only bringing harm to themselves in the long run, he explained. Also, he reminded his young singers time and again that a voice is still delicate and developing up to age 25, and one should always exercise caution.
Diaphragm support, aecording to Bergonzi, is imperative, because it works with the body, not against it. Diaphragm support is the only correct way of singing Bel Canto, he explained as he frequently corrected singers whose shoulders were too tight, hunched up, and tense. Bergonzi's ease at waving his arms in circular motions as he sings was contagious, and many a young singer began to copy him as they sang.
On getting to the high notes and holding on to them, Bergonzi warned each singer that they should visualize and imagine “arriving at a pitch” from above, rather than swooping from below. "Take your time" was another mantra Bergonzi used in Beijing. Hurrying does damage to the voice physically, and interferes with musicality and the sense of phrasing, he explained, disrupting the beautiful arches of rising and falling pitches.
Most of the singers at the master dass perfonned with music scores in front of them, creating slight problems for those who sang with their heads bowed too low, obstructing the smooth flow of air between mouth and lungs.
"It's hke having brakes on all the time when you are driving," Bergonzi joked, evoking laughter from the audience.
Bergonzi, whose eyes twinkle with as much expression as wit, also insisted on the importance of full eye contact between the singer and his or her audience. When he demonstrated singing in piano, his eyes were still intense.
"Whether you sing forte or piano, it is the intensity that counts, not the volum,” he said. "Just don't f
force the voice."
On practicing scales and melismatic passages, Bergonzi wanted his singers to know every single note of a passage inside and out. This thoroughness also exlended to minute details of crescendo and diminuendo-he complained to a few tenors thatt they were "always singing fortissimo."
The age range of the master-class singers was quite wide, ranging from early 20s to mid-30s. Bergonzi warned a 23-year-old lyric soprano about choice of repertoire.
"At this stage of your career, it is OK to sing difficult verismo arias, but do not attempt entire verismo operas," he warned. He also advised a fellow tenor to "time yourself well." starting with Don Pasquale or L'Elisir d'amore, then continuing with La traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor. Bergonzi then listed the next few phases of a tenor's repertoire development: La bohème. Faust, Massenet's Manon, then Manon Lescaut, II trovatore, and Aida. Tenors should attempt Otello or Wagnerian roles only when their voices mature and they are at the height of their careers, he added.
For Bergonzi, the underlying principle is that no singer should ever use his or her voice to its full extent. In other words, a singer must avoid stretching beyond his or her capacity.
"Use your brain to sing, not just your vocal cords,” explained Bergonzi, whose most succinct definition of Bel Canto is "beautiful singing with no exertion." To him, singing is as natural as breathing, no matter what the singer’s age.
Beijing and Shanghai are the two Chinese cities with the greatest appreciation for western opera, and in the past 10 years, opera companies in China have produced a number of the major Verdi and Puccini operas. Foreign opera companies have also toured iti China. Beijing, however, did not experience Monteverdi's Orfeo until its China premiere last year.
Clearly, the connection between Italy and China, cspecially on the operatic stage, continues to grow. and a master class such as this one does much to promote even more rewarding exchanges in the future.
Joanna C. Lee is an honoran research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong. She has written extensively in scholarly publications, including the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture, and magazines in both English and Chinese.