© Bayreuther Festspiele, Meistersinger 2018

News from the Members

Review of Dame Gwyneth Jones Masterclass, London May 2016
Dame Gwyneth Jones, President of the London Wagner Society, held a masterclass with Katie Stevenson, the 2016 London Stipendiatin

Royal Over-Seas League, 19 May 2016

Katie Barnes

This year's masterclass was devoted entirely to Katie Stevenson, the young mezzo-soprano who swept the board at last November's Singing Competition. The original intention had been to include both winners of the President's Prize, but sadly Gareth Daffyd Morris was unavailable and Dame Gwyneth suggested to the audience that perhaps he could come another time.

Stevenson began by singing through Waltraute's great narrative, Höre mit Sinn. Her intense stillness and her huge, terrified eyes gripped the audience, and her tone at "erlöst wär' Gott und Welt" was simply lovely. She looked drained at the end.

Dame Gwyneth commended her beautiful voice, but noted that Stevenson is young and has a lot to learn: they could have worked for a week on this one aria. Stating that her aim was to help Stevenson and make life easier for her, she observed that she wanted the voice to be more beautiful, more round and focused. She began by improving her pupil's posture. Because Stevenson was stooping slightly as she sang, which collapses the diaphraghm, Dame Gwyneth encouraged her to "bring her shoulders up and down" and felt her abdomen to check her breathing. "The back is your reserve tank. Breathe into your stomach and fill the whole of your back with air. Stand as though you are playing with a hula hoop, tuck your tail in and make your legs like tree trunks."

The mouth has to be round to make beautiful, round sounds and the tongue must always rest on the bottom teeth so that the voice can come up and hit the "Bayreuth decal" in the palate, enabling the sound to resonate around the mouth before emerging. "For the lower notes, make your mouth like an anteater," with the sound at the front of the mouth. Dame Gwyneth warned that a wide mouth puts a strain on the vocal chords and causes the low notes to be lost at the back of the throat. The mouth must be used to shape the consonants.

It is vital for the singer to know what every word means. Dame Gwyneth put the aria into context: "How are you feeling when you come on? You have just ridden in on a horse and are desperate to get your message to Brünnhilde, but she's not really listening." Wotan has ordered his people to chop up the Weltesche. This is the end of the world, and Waltraute is absolutely desperate. "There should be more urgency at the beginning."  She took Stevenson through the opening phrases in detail, stressing the need for a long, round-mouthed "o" sound on Höre and for strong consonants on mit Sinn and sage, making Stevenson speak the last word several times. "Control your lips and you form the roundness of the sound. Think of your mouth forming the actual sound. It's like playing a trumpet - focus the sound and make the mouth smaller. Get the urgency into it, be much more agitato - you're trying to stop them burning down Valhalla!... It will take a long time to get right, but it will be so worth it."

As they worked through the aria, Dame Gwyneth sang some notes and phrases to demonstrate how they should be done and how the mouth should be shaped around the consonants. "Really use the consonants at geschlagen, you have to feel the schlag. Let the jaw down on every vowel to let the inside of the mouth have the place for the tone to develop." She recalled the advice of her own teacher, Dame Eva Turner: "Rrrroll your R's, my dearrrr!"

I noticed the improvement in Stevenson's tone and voice production as the master class progressed. Dame Gwyneth continued to stress the importance of the words - "the sound of the vowels has to be covered" and demonstrated the line dann noch einmal to demonstrate how the sound is enriched by keeping the mouth open. The breath control has to be matched with the tone to avoid gasping for breath, and bringing the tone to the front of the mouth helps the resonance.

At "liegen wir Walküren", "Waltraute is absolutely terrified," and by speaking the text, Dame Gwyneth demonstrated how the singer must grip the audience's attention and look into space to see Wotan thinking of Brünnhilde. "Bring warmth to the tone at Brünnhilde and keep the mouth round at Blick to increase the warmth." They sang the passage together - Dame Gwyneth's soft, perfectly formed sound was spellbinding - and she spoke the words to show how expressive they are.

Stevenson admitted that her singing was much more focused when she followed Dame Gwyneth's advice and that her sound carried better. "You have to talk about these things to help singers to make the best of their instruments," Dame Gwyneth said, observing that singers' instruments are not just their voices but "the whole of their bodies from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes" and especially what is in their heads, the lips, teeth and tongue.

For "Des tiefen Rheines Töchtern", Dame Gwyneth advised Stevenson to get the voice forward and focused for the lower notes so that they will project over the orchestra - "then you can really play with that" - and for Träume, to bring the lower lip forward "like a shaving mug or an ape" to make the tongue rigid. "Focus the sound with your mouth and you don't need to give so much". Stevenson once again produced a most beautiful, warm, round tone for "Gott und Welt", and with Waltraute's final plea, Dame Gwyneth commented, "Now we have the Wagner sound!".

They spent the remainder of the session on a complete contrast, Ottavia's aria Disprezzata Regina from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, for which, as Dame Gwyneth approvingly observed, Stevenson had written her own translation. The combination of Wagner and Monteverdi may at first sight seem a strange one, but Dame Gwyneth considers it important for Wagner singers to sing music by other composers: her own Bayreuth audition was from Il Trovatore.

Ottavia is a Queen, and the aria needs a regal approach - "she will lose dignity if she doesn't look imposing". The very words must be regal: the word Regina must be emphasised - "I'm the Queen!" - and "del monarco Romano" must convey a sense of "How dare they despise me!" "Empio" must be regal too, "otherwise Nero sounds too nice". But the aria is full of changes of mood, each of which has different sound qualities, and the singer must be comfortable with all of them.

What a fascinating evening this was, one in which pupil and audience alike benefited from the teacher's advice and our knowledge of music which we thought we already knew well was extended and illuminated. And, as a teaser for the future, Dame Gwyneth remarked in passing that she has started writing her memoirs. When can I reserve a copy, please?