Mission: Possible?

Opus Osm

James Gray (left) coaches Patrik Malec on loosening the jaws for better tone quality.

In just a week, ten aspiring singers learn to sing opera, and put their voices on display in a final, public concert. … Was it possible?

They range in age from nearly 50 to just 14. They sing in Czech opera choruses, or only in the shower. They have studied music for years at a conservatory, or sung and played in a rock band.

But the ten came to the tiny village of Osvračín July 8-14 to immerse themselves in countless hours of tough training, all for the love of their music. The Course in Early Music for Singers and Accompanists was organized by Jana Vacíková (part-time chorus singer, Pilseň opera) and led by mezzosoprano Markéta Malcová (Prague Conservatory grad, with her own private music school in Ireland); and counter-tenor James Gray (pianist, London’s Royal Academy of Music student, Baroque music researcher, Mannheim National Theatre repétiteur).

Jana Vacíková is standing in the sunlit loft of a barn converted to an art gallery at Mill Osvračín, the country bed-and-breakfast where the workshop has already been under way for several days. Teacher Markéta Malcová is seated on a wooden chair in front of her, with her hand pressing lightly on Jana’s throat. Jana sings scales, higher and higher.

“Now her voice will be quite thin and squeaky, awful,” Markéta explains. “But I’m prepared for it.” Like many singers, Jana unconsciously locks her throat as she sings higher. Markéta is monitoring the throat’s tenseness.

Next, Jana sticks her tongue out, wraps a handkerchief around it, holds it pulled out of her mouth – and sings. “The tongue can’t go up to the roof of the mouth,” Markéta tells us. “It has to come forward.” All these little gymnastics are helping students like Jana retrain their singing muscles so they can feel when they are misusing them, according to Markéta. “This prepares the throat to be open for a very beautiful tone.”

Opus Osm

Markéta Malcová (right) shows Jana Vacíková how to relax her throat to hit the high notes.

After Jana sings more scales with the backs of her hands pressed into her sides, with Markéta’s hand on her throat (“eee, aaah” she sings), Markéta pinching Jana’s chin or wobbling Jana’s head to loosen her neck, Jana finally sings part of an aria, untouched. Her voice is breathier, softer, and not as harsh or strained.

Over in the group kitchen, student Helena Beránková is slicing salami for lunch. “I was very surprised at this new teaching method,” the 18-year-old says. “But Markéta told us she would touch us all the time.” Using these methods, Helen’s been able to reach four or five tones higher, she says.

“It’s a faster way to put more power, and get a clean, bright sound.”

Later, in a lesson with James Gray, she argues for embellishments for the aria Se Di Te Mio Ben from the Este collection no. 179, which Helena will perform Sunday afternoon at the nearby Staňkov church with the other soloists. Helena points to a section of the aria: “It’s all the same, over and over,” she says. “But here, he’s crying,” James explains, “so there are no embellishments.”

After the lessons, James turns from the piano to comment on the workshop. “There have been some nice little surprises,” he reveals. For example, “Catherine has made incredible progress.” ‘Cat Black’ had been singing rock ‘n roll and grunge in Wexford pubs, but this week she’s retraining her voice for a Bach and a Caldara aria in Sunday’s concert.

“I thought you had to have a university degree to be a singer,” she tells Opus Osm. “I never thought music was an option for me. So I took menial job after job, not following my passion.” Last year she began private voice and theory lessons with Markéta, and has released an album of her own compositions. Next, she’s going to try singing jazz classics. “I’m actually on a path now,” Cat says. “It’s nice to be working towards something.”

Sharing a few pre-performance nerves, the students relax after one of their final rehearsals. You can watch an excerpt from their actual performance, in the video below.

On the workshop’s last day, James shares an accompanist’s tips with the singers — things we in the audience never think about: “It’s the accompanist’s job to catch up to the singer, so I won’t start playing until you begin. … If the audience applauds, don’t look at me, look down and then look up at them. … If you bow, and then nod to me to stand up, then you have to bow again at the same time with me.”

And perhaps most important, “You can’t have any pauses once you start singing. If you forget the words, just keep going – sing anything, even ‘fa la la!’”

As for the final concert – it’s hard to say which was lovelier: the clear, precise voices of the two male and eight female soloists, or the self-confidence and mastery they displayed in their singing.

And no, nobody forgot the words. But yes, most of the students want to have another workshop next summer. – oo

– Mary Matz, editor of Opus Osm

Photo Credits: All photos and video: Miroslav Setnička

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