Since her farewell to opera took place in America and her UK concert appearances are few and far between nowadays (a forthcoming Brahms German Requiem at Winchester later this month notwithstanding), the opportunity to attend a three-hour masterclass given by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the Guildhall in London was irresistible. A packed hall greeted the great diva with loud cheers, as she prepared to put five student singers through their paces.
First up was Tanya Cooling with 'Ruhe sanft' from Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide. Dame Kiri explained that although each of the students had prepared arias by three different composers, she had chosen Mozart for four of the five because she believes his music to be essential to every singer's technical foundation. She praised Cooling's high pianissimi and the beauty of her basic instrument, but helped her to achieve more tone in the upper register during passages containing difficult leaps. As was the case throughout the class, Te Kanawa demonstrated liberally how she might go about singing the piece, revealing that her voice is still remarkably well preserved, but was at pains to make it clear that she did not want to impose either an interpretation or a specific sound on Cooling.
Dame Kiri had perhaps a greater impact on the next singer, Gwawr Edwards, who sang Pamina's aria from The Magic Flute. Although Edwards sold the number well in her initial performance, Te Kanawa was able to rein in her tendency to overdramatise a tragic moment, instead instilling her voice with more restraint, focus and control. At the end of her session, Edwards began to produce more spin in the voice, as Dame Kiri herself noted with satisfaction.
The moment Catia Moreso opened her mouth and started singing the recitative to 'Smanie implacabile' from Così fan tutte, the audience sat up. Here was a confident performer with stage presence and the ability to produce a big sound. Yet Dame Kiri was able to move her on a long way by containing the physical energy in places whilst increasing the intensity of the singing in others. She also turned for the first time in the class towards the text and encouraged Moreso to clarify her diction, thereby deriving greater rhetoric from the repeated 'Fuggi, fuggi' in the recitative, for instance.
For me, the highlight of the class came after the interval, when Te Kanawa demonstrated Manon's 'Adieu, notre petite table' to Emilie Brégeon. The latter had given an impressively idiomatic performance, yet when Dame Kiri took to the stage, slowed down the tempo and extended the length of each note, the effect was heart-stopping. Without a doubt, Brégeon benefited from this demonstration of how to portray Manon's sorrow by controlling the line.
The most impressive of the students came last, with Hannah Morrison performing Susanna's Aria. It was not merely that Morrison had the best voice for Mozart – a nice creamy soubrette that may grow in colour – but also that she managed to take on the advice she was given and make a perceptible change. Dame Kiri gave her the confidence not to worry about the 'high notes' by removing them for one play-through and making Morrison focus on shaping the phrases, which were initially bumpy. By the end of her slot, Morrison was able to give a splendidly poised rendition of the piece without allowing any of the notes to stand out beyond their importance or letting technical difficulties rule the musical expression.
During a generous question and answer session, Te Kanawa gave a candid account of life as a major opera singer, touching on every topic from agents to choosing the right roles, from looking after the voice to her failed marriage, and at the end gave time for autographs. Without a doubt, Dame Kiri's words were inspiring to the student population, and it was equally inspiring to see so many of them attend the afternoon. The singer indicated she would be willing to return for another session at another date, and as far as I'm concerned, it can't be soon enough.