Friday, August 1, 2014
Kashu-do (歌手道): The First Härnösand Summer Opera Academy: A Greater Achievement Than I Ever Imagined
The idea of yet another summer course sounds crazy with a saturated market, but having participated as both teacher and student at quite a few summer programs (when one could trust the offerings), I was very clear of what I did not want to offer. This was not some money making venture for teachers trying to fill their summer calendars and it was not a two-week course posing as everyone's final miracle cure. Along with the best programs I had the great luck to enjoy when I was a developing singer, I wanted to create an environment where the students and teachers could really concentrate on the "quality" of what they do and hopefully take stock of their artistic package.
I believe strongly in imagining our objectives. I often daydream about my Scala debut, even at age 48 in a new fach and by the assessment of the pragmatists a very long shot. But when I look at the accomplishments, which my imagination have brought to reality, I stop thinking of living my destiny based on the realities and constraints of others. When I look at my teaching life post-academia, it is precisely the way I imagined it 8 years ago. When I take stock of my vocal development post-baritone, it is pretty much how I imagined it would be. I have a crucial next step ahead, but I am seeing the dream become a reality.
This summer academy also began with a thought, about six years ago, that Sweden, with its deep singing culture and operatic pedigree was probably the best place to see the philosophy of Kashu-do truly develop. Kashu-do is no mystery. It is simply a commitment to old school principles of developing talent by hard work and facing the paradoxical nature of life--something that requires philosophical reflection, whether we speak of chiaroscuro or Yin-and-yang. Even as late as the 80s, the movie, Fame and television series that followed it concentrated on the importance of "...paying in sweat" for success.
The location and support system
The correct location for a course of this scope was of paramount importance. One day, one of my students in Northern Sweden invited a friend to one of my master classes. It happened to be the head of the Music Department at the Folkhögskola (equivalent to a community college) in Härnösand, Sweden. I visited the school a couple of days later and soon found myself teaching a couple of master classes there and making firm plans for the summer academy. Nothing is done alone. My dear colleagues at Härnösands Folkhögskola, particularly the department head, Helén Lundquist-Dahlén and lead vocal instructor, Karin Bengtsdotter-Olsson, invested time, energy and heart to make this course a success. I never felt alone in this ambitious enterprise.
Once the location was fixed and we were committed to making the course happen the very next summer, we had work to do. The first was building a team. At one point one of my students suggested I bring on a famous singer and an agent, so singers would feel they had a chance to make certain career steps. Having a big-name singer come and do a concert and speak about his/her experience is in the books for the future. That kind of experience is always inspiring, but I did not want to have a famous teacher come to teach just because of the name. I have seen otherwise good programs get totally derailed by famous personalities who have very little to do with the greater vision. I have some dream people in mind and perhaps in future years they could contribute in the best of ways! As for agents, I did not want students to feel that they were there to impress anyone. The nature of the academy is to provide an environment where true reflection and development could occur. If the student is ready to be heard by an agent, that can happen in a different environment.
I decided to bring together a diverse group of people who had only one special attribute in common: A very high standard of excellence combined with a long term view of development. These people all achieved great things in their careers with plenty of adversity. They are success-oriented and know that success is a developing idea.
Katrin Kapplusch, one of my top students over the years, is an extraordinary soprano who made her biggest career strides at a time when most would consider their chances to be diminishing. She is an active spinto soprano throughout Europe and a gifted voice teacher.
Gabriella Sborgi, an Italian mezzo-soprano, is an artist of uncommon inspiration who has the ability to see possibilities where others see obstacles. We encountered each other at a course very similar to this one about a decade ago. Artistic partnerships are built often long before the partnerships take place. She is a rare Italian who makes a career combining Mozart, contemporary music and Lieder. With Verdi's Nabucco she recently entered the dramatic mezzo repertoire with singular flair and multi-faceted approach. She is an experienced teacher influencing a generation of Italian singers that look beyond their natural talents to develop into well-rounded artists.
Andrej Hovrin and Alessandro Zuppardo are two pianists with very diverse backgrounds and very different approaches. They are both ridiculously technically accomplished with a profound understanding of music as a language beyond the sum of individual notes on a page. They meet in their passion for Lieder and mélodies and are both steeped in the art of Opera. They complimented each other so thoroughly. Their professional accomplishments are extraordinary.
Karin Bengtsdotter Olsson is one of the most gifted voice teachers I have ever encountered as is evident of the extraordinary development of students at the Härnösand Folkhögskola. Watching her teach during the two weeks has been a revelation and I look forward to learning from her and taking advantage of her vast experience.
Helén Lundquist-Dahlén is a superior musician and a talented choral conductor. Her teamwork with Alessandro Zuppardo lead to highly successful final concert of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle. She is also a visionary leader who is able to anticipate problems before they happen. Her vigilant eye kept us well-steered during a very full two-weeks.
Two guest lectures from Professor Anders Olsson on Walt Whitman and The Hermeneutic Circle, a principle of text interpretation rounded out our process so beautifully.
Finally, the unexpected element in an opera master class ended up being the key element. The presence of Sifu Karl Romain, master Kung Fu and Tai Chi teacher was the glue for this inspired team. Because of Sifu Romain's presence, the course took a direction dealing with energy and balance in the context of singing.
22 Students and 10 instructors combined seamlessly to create an environment of mutual support and learning. The students included professionals, traditional students and inspired amateurs. Some of the professionals were amazed by the skills the amateurs displayed. Likewise, the amateurs saw the completeness that makes a professional a professional. The gifted traditional students took attributes of the other two groups and in the end everyone became a amateur in the true sense of the word--a lover of the art with limitless aspirations. We teachers became students as well.
For my part, I was able to see how my many experiences instructed my teaching. Three and a half years of Kung Fu and Tai Chi have contributed greatly to my athletic approach to singing. Students were able to see how vocal science confirmed the many traditional approaches we were steeped in and yet again Yin and Yang were complimentary and not opposite. Through this experience I realized that my important next step was to give in to my intuition when it came to my own singing. It is time to let go and let my voice sing. The two weeks helped me personally to dare to take the crucial step that goes beyond understanding. I've known from the onset that singing is a dynamic experience that cannot be put in a cage. There is a time for structure and there is a time to just sing. This experience gave me the courage to let go in ways I needed to and it seems that each member of this wonderful family made steps they might not have taken on their own in a different environment. The environment invited courage because everyone felt supported.
This was our first year and we discussed immediately at the end of the course with students and teachers about what we can improve on. It is however most unusual that even when pressed, I could not get a negative review from anyone who took part. This was way beyond what I expected and yet I am already working to better this for next year.
My heartfelt gratitude to the students, my colleagues, the people of Härnösand who supported our concerts heartily, the other teachers at the Folkhögskola who were always present to provide emotional and moral support, our friends and families who helped in all kinds of ways to help make this program a success. I look forward to this program developing into a real force in the vocal/operatic landscape over the next few years.
The following video is a small report of the academy's activities: