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Martin Katz: Master of Class

June 24, 2013

Merola Opera Program

Matthew NewlinDubbed “the gold standard of accompanists” by The New York Times, Martin Katz has spent 40 years accompanying and coaching the likes of Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle, and Jose Carreras. As America’s successor to England’s Gerald Moore, who was the accompanist of choice for many of the greatest art song exponents of earlier decades, Katz has amassed a vast understanding of what it takes to put over an aria or song as if everyone’s life, including those of audience members, depended on it.

On Monday night, Katz took the stage of Nourse Theatre to share his knowledge with five gifted participants in the 2013 Merola Opera Program. Standing before an audience of invited Merola patrons, he repeated one of his oft-quoted phrases: “The opera world doesn’t need any more beige.” Thus did he establish the raison d’être of the evening: the encouragement of unique, character-rich performance, grounded in solid technique, that would linger long in the memory.

Katz twice requested empathy from his observers. Not only were these young artists singing material that, in some cases, they’d never tackled before, but they also were taking risks in public less than 24 hours after equally nerve-wracking auditions for San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley. It is in that spirit of empathy that this reflection on the wisdom that master teacher Katz shared shall proceed.

Daryl Freedman First up was remarkably relaxed, witty, and delightfully spontaneous tenor, Matthew Newlin, accompanied by Michael Shannon on piano. Showcasing a lovely voice that easily encompassed the high C of “Ecco ridente in cielo” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Newlin exhibited impressive trills and breath control in a performance distinguished by irresistible eagerness.

After telling Newlin that he seemed to be either enjoying what he was singing or faking it very well, Katz explored what about Almaviva’s singing was going to make Rosina favor his serenade over that of other suitors. “I would suggest that, in the first part of the aria, the real turn on for Rosina is how soft you can go in music that rests in the middle of your voice.”

With every suggestion motivated by the understanding that since Rosina cannot see Almaviva, seduction must be accomplished by voice alone, Katz encouraged Newlin to go to town. Milking passages, taking the lead from tenor tradition and going for broke at the close, and realizing that, in this aria, correct grammatical breaks for breath were not necessarily the best places to pause within a musical phrase, were among his suggestions. With aspiration (using “huh-huh” breath sounds to connect consonants sung on a rapid succession of notes) discouraged, and every note given full meaning, Newlin transformed from just another seducer with a great voice to absolute winner.

David Weigel After gifted mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman’s tour-de-force rendition of “Oh! la pitoyable aventure” from Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, beautifully accompanied by Timothy Cheung, Katz pointed out the difference between hyper-dramatic verismo and French subtlety. “Don’t show me how you’re going to sound when you sing Azucena,” he counseled, as he voiced a mantra repeated to several Merolini: “Less is more.”

Encouraging the rich-voiced Freedman to sing softly, and to not carry chest voice higher than necessary, he paved the way for a transformation that, as with Newlin and every singer who followed, made for a far more compelling performance.

To towering bass-baritone David Weigel, who with pianist Sahar Nouri performed Banquo's aria “Come dal ciel precipita” from Verdi’s Macbeth, Katz quipped, “When this aria is over, you’re dead. This is your moment. You don’t want people in the audience questioning if they just paid $300 for nothing. Allow yourself lots of time. Make me voracious to hear your aria by having so much going on in the recitative and taking each phrase somewhere. Your climax will sound louder if you start softer.”

Maria Valdes While each singer’s performance improved markedly in the span of 20 minutes, the most astounding transformation, to these ears, occurred in soprano Maria Valdes’ “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Handel’s Julius Caesar. Accompanied by Jeremy Weissmann, whom Katz encouraged to play as though his piano were a single continuo instrument rather than a grand Brahmsian keyboard, Valdes learned to connect octaves and register transitions both tonally and dynamically.

As with Weigel, Katz also asked that the shape and dynamics of Valdes’ recitative lead inexorably to her aria. “That B is not really high for you,” he said of one of her climactic high notes, “so you have to simulate difficulty.”

The results were anything but routine. Almaviva had better watch out, because, in a short amount of time, this Cleopatra’s suffering became just as seductive as his infectious joy.

When baritone Chris Carr performed the Tower Scene from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with Noah Lindquist on piano, Katz noted that Pelléas’ music is usually tackled either by baritones who struggle with the high notes, or tenors who peter out on the low ones. Carr, he noted, had no such problem; his lows were sonorous, and his high A secure. (To these ears, it was glorious.)

Chris CarrAttention turned instead to language. “In French, consonants are never more important than vowels,” he said. “French composers and librettists so love the language that every note is crammed with vowels. Emphasize the vowels.” Eschewing the kind of homogenized French pronunciation favored by too many contemporary recitalists, who soften both nasal sounds and open vowels in order to create a smooth, virtually instrumental line, he helped Carr infuse his superb voice with the language-based colors that help make Debussy’s opera so compelling.

Although each singer took to the stage with an extraordinary, well-developed instrument — to these ears, there was not a single question mark in the bunch — Katz helped each to understand what it takes to transform glorious sound into great artistry. Taking in the big picture, observing the evolving arc of recitative and aria, understanding context, and pacing oneself in order to put on a good vocal show were among the themes that he voiced voiced with a care, wit, and relaxed confidence that brought out the best in each singer. By the end of class, it became clear how much the Merola program’s master teachers are able to accomplish in a few short months.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.