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José Cura Masterclass

British Youth Opera & Royal Academy of Music 19 September 2005


Kishani Jayasinghe - Soprano

Kim Sheehan – Soprano

James Edwards – Tenor

David Stout - Baritone


It's 9.30 pm on a Monday evening and one of the world's leading tenors is sitting, quite unselfconsciously, on the floor of the auditorium in the Sir Jack Lyon Theatre of the RAM completely absorbed in a group of young singers on stage who are working on a scene from La boh è me. In fact they've been working together since about 3 o'clock that afternoon, at first in a closed session, before being joined by an audience of young opera and music students.


The Maestro is José Cura, who is in London to sing the lead tenor role in La Fanciulla del West at the Royal Opera House, and who has generously donated his time to another of his favourite activities, that of a committed teacher eager to share his skills with young singers. At the piano is Anthony Legge, Director of Opera at RAM.


Maestro Cura had greeted the audience with a few words of explanation. It's a group of young professionals he is working with, all have been studying for some time and are nearing the completion of their formal training. During the session he is going to concentrate on style and performance, not technical matters – these are best tackled on an individual basis with your singing teacher. What he wants to share is the knack of finding the under-text in words and music and using it to develop character and colouring in the voice.


What stands out immediately is the unpretentiousness of Cura's approach, he treats the singers not as juniors but as colleagues and puts them immediately at their ease. They will be working on operas he has never sung in performance, an opportunity for discovering them together. It is of course classic opera repertoire that has been chosen particularly to suit and develop young voices, and the first item is the end of Act I of La bohème.


Firstly they consider the background and look for the under-text: Rudolfo is sitting in his garret trying to finish off his writing, his friends have just left noisily for the café and suddenly Mimi appears on the landing with an unlit candle. She lives several floors below, so what is she doing up there? Perhaps she has contrived the meeting . . . so let's try it like that, with Mimi being the first to hide the key. Just lean forward as though you are trying to help her, (I'm paraphrasing from memory not quoting his actual words), automatically your voice will soften and become warmer, and it does. You are both in the dark - Mimi, just stretch your hand his direction, so that his can just brush against it – feel the frisson Che gelida manina! now you can hold hands – don't worry about the top note, just mark it, this is a working session – and the singer feels relaxed enough to shout an aside to the audience – I can sing it – really – It's on my website. Now it's Mimi's turn again: Mi chiamano Mimi - look for that under text again, she doesn't know what to say, she just wants to keep talking to him . . . don't build up the volume too soon, you've a lot more of the opera to sing and you need to keep something in reserve, physically and emotionally . . . but still the singing builds to a poignant c lima x, and I notice smiles all over the face of her singing teacher who happens to be sitting in front of me.


After a short break, there's a change of mood to some recitative from Le nozze di Figaro between the Susanna and The Count. Don't forget that they are servant and master, although it's recit we still need to able to hear that they speak quite differently, he must always be in charge. Let the under-text through . . .


Then, it's back to Boheme and the Act III trio section – Marcello torn between his understanding of Mimi's predicament and loyalty to his friend Rudolfo - and feelings are again discussed. Cura leaps up and down from the stage for the umpteenth time, and he and the singers are so immersed that the audience has disappeared for them completely, though we are equally engrossed in the remarkable process of evolution and growth that has been taking place in front of us. All too soon time had run out and proceedings had to be drawn to a close with a final pledge from the Maestro “I enthusiastically congratulate British Youth Opera's goal, and I am happy to offer a continuous contribution to their activities. Only one who, like myself, has carved his way relying on his own ‘fingernails' can fully appreciate how much it means for a young artist to be backed-up by an institution that gives both spiritual confidence and realistic opportunities to the beginners.”


A follow-up second part of the masterclass was presented at a fund-raising gala showcase at Lloyd's to an audience of opera lovers from the world of banking and business raising much needed funding for BYO's training programme for emerging professional singers, musicians and technical trainees. I am told that Jose was again absolutely outstanding and managed in an even shorter time to move the singers up yet another rung - they were all so thrilled. It was a magic evening - the city greats all felt they had been transported to another time and place - it was really extremely moving.


Serena Fenwick



© Peter Grahame Woolf