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Renée Fleming: Support the song, the breath and each other

Renee Fleming at Sanders Theatre. PHOTOS: JACOB BELCHER/OFA

How do you get Harvard students out of bed early on a Saturday morning? Host a master class with opera star Renée Fleming. The Office for the ArtsLearning From Performers program teamed up with Dunster House Opera and Celebrity Series of Boston to present a master class on Feb. 2 at Sanders Theatre during Fleming’s local visit for her Boston performance at Symphony Hall on Feb. 3. Accompanied by George Fu ’13 on piano and observed by a packed house of students and community members, five students performed arias and recitatives for Fleming who offered praise, tips and encouragement. The theme of the morning was support, both technically and metaphorically, as Fleming encouraged the students to focus on their breathing and help each other improve.

Fleming owns the stage not only with her own powerful voice but with a unique blend of charisma, warmth and humor that only adds to her already dizzying list of accomplishments. Cracking jokes while she gave advice, Fleming put both the performers and audience instantly at ease. Levi Roth ’14, the morning’s first vocalist, sang an aria from Massenet’s Cinderella, the Dunster House Opera production running Feb. 8-16. After he sang, Fleming encouraged Roth to remember the role of acting during performance. Often, she said, vocalists focus so much on singing they forget to bring enthusiastic acting to the performance. Working as a team, the two tweaked his approach to add more presence. Indeed, Fleming made sure to continue working with each student until she saw progress — no matter how small or large.

Fleming’s advice, always presented with warmth and humor, was enhanced by her incredible knowledge of operatic history. She contextualized each performance with history, and also asked performers — Roth, Allison Ray ’14, Liv Redpath ’14, Camille Crossot ’16 and Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15 — to explain how their songs fit into the operas from which they were excerpted. While emphasizing context, she nudged students to understand their bodies and improve the way their voices and bodies work together.

In her instruction and in her Q&A session with the audience, Fleming emphasized breath support as “creating a cushion on which the voice can live,” and noted that her neck “feels like it disappears” when she is singing with proper support. When asked about dealing with life tension before singing, she recommended singers stay aware of stress in their lives and try to prevent it from entering their bodies. Of course, vocal support is not the only kind she discussed on this lively Saturday morning. She also stressed supporting your fellow artists in friendship and performance. As for the future? Fleming is excited about the evolution of the genre of opera, both in terms of instrumentation and music influences. Her work with young Harvard artists is a step toward that goal.

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