Coaches Weigh In: From LA to the Met to La Scala
by Maria Nockin
This spring I interviewed three coaches who work at some of the world’s most important opera houses: Coach Beatrice Benzi of Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Assistant Conductor Yelena Kurdina of the Metropolitan Opera, and Head Coach Nino Sanikidze of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at Los Angeles Opera. We talked via telephone about their backgrounds, their duties, and what accomplishments they think young singers must possess to enter a Young Artist Program.
Where did you study music?
Beatrice Benzi: I took my degree at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan. After that I followed my teacher, Bruno Canino, to masterclasses in Barcelona and Siena. Most of what I know about coaching I learned on the job. From Maestro Canino, with whom I loved working, I learned to play chamber music, be part of an ensemble, and accompany singers. For a while, I played in a duo with Gianandrea Noseda, who was also a student at the conservatory. I only got interested in opera when I received a fellowship to study at La Scala. There I began to enjoy the repertory and the artistry of the company’s wonderful singers.
Nino Sanikidze: At the age of 5, I was sent to a special music school in Georgia, the country where I was born. I studied piano at the conservatory there and attended graduate school for my professional degree in accompanying. My sister Tamara and I went to Italy for the IBLA Grand Prize Music Competition and we both won scholarships to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where I got my master’s degree in piano performance. While at UNI, I attended the Aspen Music Festival and met Rita Sloan, who taught at the University of Maryland. After I finished in Iowa, I worked on my doctorate with Sloan in College Park, Maryland, and got my DMA in 2010.
Yelena Kurdina: I went to school in St. Petersburg and had planned to finish my bachelor’s degree in piano performance in Russia, but my family decided to immigrate before I could complete it. As a result, I attended the St. Louis Conservatory for a couple of years, where I met my future mentor and friend, John Wustman. I continued my graduate studies with him at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I earned my master of vocal accompanying and coaching degree.
How did you bridge the gap between school and working in the profession?
Benzi: La Scala gave me a fellowship to study coaching―so, as a student, I first came to the theater where I now work. Now I am a coach and rehearsal pianist there. Some of my colleagues are pianists and assistant conductors who are really prompters. They just want me to prepare singers for their performances. In some ways, La Scala is old fashioned, and even these days only men serve as prompters and assistant conductors.
Sanikidze: While in Maryland, I was accepted into the Washington National Opera Young Artist Program. There, I met Plácido Domingo and many other important people in the opera world. In 2005, I finished my courses and began freelancing. I fell in love with Los Angeles Opera and, luckily, its people liked me, too. It was then that Maestro Domingo said he wanted to start a Young Artist Program there. He asked if I would consider moving to L.A. I did not have to think that over. The program began in 2006, and I’ve been here ever since.
What does a young singer have to know and be able to perform to be accepted into a Young Artist Program?
Benzi: The singer must have a voice that can be heard unamplified in a sizable theater. It must have a pleasant timbre and some aspects of musical color. In other words, the applicant must have the basic material coaches need to produce a professional singer. It is also important that the student have enthusiasm, the desire to be an opera singer, and enough good will to take correction gracefully. Singers need to have open minds and be humble enough to accept instruction.
Because coaches are in the theater every day and see unvarnished reality, they sometimes tell singers to do things differently from what was required in the conservatory. Most young singers concentrate on the vocal aspects of their roles. At La Scala, they also have to develop interpretations of their characters. They have to learn to combine vocal technique with phrasing, interpretation, and acting. Many singers think of a Young Artist Program as a place to audition for managers. It is a great deal more than that.
Sanikidze: One of the reasons American artists have trouble starting their careers has to do with the size of American theaters. Students graduate from conservatories when they are in their mid 20s. Unless they are born with especially big voices, they are not yet physically able to sing in 3,000-seat halls. Young Artist Programs help fill this gap. The singers in programs can take lessons, have coaching sessions, and study the many disciplines artists need without having to find enough work to pay for all of it. There is a great deal of competition to get into programs, however. We often receive 600 applications for a few spaces. We accept up to 10 singers, but many stay for more than a year. Sometimes we have only four slots for new singers.
Kurdina: First of all, a singer has to have an exceptional voice. Singers also have to be very good musicians. They need to have their techniques pretty much in place and have a good command of opera languages. The program should not be expected to teach them new things but rather polish, develop, and reinforce all the knowledge and skills they have already acquired, as well as put them on stage. Singers really learn their craft by performing. Of course, there are always a few people with spectacular voices and less of a musical background, but those are the exceptions. Sanikidze: It is a privilege and a responsibility to be in a Young Artist Program. Singers have to work hard to use all of what is offered to them and prove that those of us on the admission committee were right to accept them. Teachers and coaches give them the tools and leave it up to them to use them. The Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program has been lucky in that many of our graduates have gone on to make great careers. LAO will be 30 years old next year, so it is a relatively young company. Sometimes it has newer ideas than some of the older, more established opera houses.
Some programs want singers who have all their ducks in a row, sing well, and are well groomed. For Los Angeles, Maestro Domingo wants to find young artists who are in some way outstanding. He wants us to find singers with major talent even if other aspects of their performance needs a bit of tweaking.
Are there any YAP issues unique to Italy?
Benzi: Right now, performers are not allowed to teach in public schools. Thus, young artists are learning from people who have not performed professionally. When they go to a private voice teacher like Mirella Freni or Renato Bruson, they find the atmosphere very different. I really do think that will have to change soon. General Manager and Artistic Director of Teatro alla Scala Alexander Pereira wants people who work in the theater to teach at the La Scala Academy.
What are some of the most important aspects of your art that you learned from your teachers?
Sanikidze: My mentor, Warren Jones, always said that a singer who cannot hear his or her neighbor in an ensemble is too loud. I loved working with Rita Sloan because she is such a phenomenal pianist. She encouraged each of her students to keep his or her individuality. She told us how a piece should sound and left it up to us to figure out how to make it sound that way. I found that aspect very helpful when working with singers whose voices are totally individual.
Singers need to know operatic tradition, but they must not copy singers on recordings. Mezzos should know who Tatiana Troyanos is and gain inspiration from listening to her. Young singers have to find their own voices within themselves, however, both literally and figuratively.
Kurdina: John Wustman did not often tell his students what to do, but he set a fantastic example for us with his disciplined hard work. When I met him, he often played for Pavarotti and traveled a great deal. Watching and listening to him was the greatest lesson we could learn. He gave us a lot of freedom in learning different repertoire, both in opera and in lieder. He worked more in his studio with singers and pianists than he was ever required to do. His enthusiasm and love for music was infectious.
Why do singers need a prompter?
Kurdina: Prompting is a largely misunderstood profession that came from the spoken theater when actors needed the words. In my experience, singers very seldom forget the words. A prompter in the opera theater is more like a second conductor whose only focus is on the singers. Prompters show cues all the time because they never know when a singer might need help. It’s assurance for the singers when the conductor is focused on the orchestra.
Sometimes a singer cannot see the conductor; at other times, a singer may not be able to hear the orchestra or another singer. When so many things are going on at the same time on stage, the presence of a prompter is a security blanket for the singers.
Members of the chorus watch the prompter as well. They find us especially helpful when the opera is in Russian or Czech. I, personally, always mouth the choral line with them. If someone forgets a word, they can quickly find their place by looking at me.
Nino, what does Operalia do for contestants?
Sanikidze: I love working with Operalia. Since I get to hear all the auditions for the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, I know what is happening in the U.S. With Operalia, I get to see how American singers measure up to the world. Many of the Operalia singers for whom I played have become stars. The competition is set up so that singers do not need money, just talent. Maestro Domingo insists on that because he says, “When I was young, I wished they had programs like that for me.” General managers and casting directors from all over the world attend Operalia so participants don’t have to worry about having the money to travel to audition in London, Paris, Vienna, etc.
Do you have an anecdote about a singer you have worked with?
Benzi: I worked on Verdi’s Don Carlo at La Scala where Dolora Zajick, one of my favorite mezzos, sang Eboli in 2008. The opera company’s general manager asked me to work with her on some details. After spending some time with her talking about pronunciation and how much pronunciation influences interpretation, Dolora said, “What an interesting afternoon! I would like you to come teach these things to my pupils!” Wow! I almost started crying! I still remember these words. This means that great singers like her are still willing to study, learn, and find out something new. That’s the way young students should be!
Kurdina: Maybe this isn’t an anecdote, but someone who made a great impression on me was Plácido Domingo. When I coached him in a role of Gherman in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, he was always on time, except once when the Met Costume Department kept him too long for a fitting. He phoned me and said he would only be there for the last half hour of his session but wouldn’t mind waiting until I finished with the next person and could then continue the coaching. He came and worked for the half hour, waited patiently while I coached another singer, and resumed his session. I was amazed that a super-busy and super-famous person like him would be so humble and modest. I also found that he has tremendous ability to focus on what he is doing at the moment. I guess that is why he is capable of learning such an incredible amount of repertoire.
Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.