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Rochester Lyric Opera’s Opera Week – Master Class with Jan Opalach

By Eric Townell, RLO Artistic Director

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Jan Opalach, bass-baritone

As a part of Opera Week celebrations on Saturday, November 1, presented by the Rochester Lyric Opera jointly with Nazareth College, a vocal master class featuring world-class bass- baritone JAN OPALACH, Associate Professor of Voice at the Eastman School of Music, was offered from 2:00–4:00 P.M. 

Widely respected for his long and celebrated career at New York’s City Opera and performances with major companies worldwide, Jan Opalach has won the Kosciuszko Foundation’s Marcella Sembrich Award, prestigious Walter M. Naumburg Vocal Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, s’Hertogenbosch International Vocalisten Concours as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Soloist Recital Grant. He has been heard in recitals at Alice Tully Hall, Merkin Concert Hall (NY), Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie), Kosciuszko Foundation (NY), Music Mountain (CT), Miller Theater (Columbia University), Bruno Walter Auditorium, Morgan Library, Concertgebouw (Amsterdam, Netherlands), Edmonton Chamber Music Festival (Alberta, Canada), Library of Congress, Ambassador Auditorium (Pasadena), Cape and islands Festival (MA), Hudson River Museum (NY), Rockport (MA) Chamber Music Festival, Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum (Boston), Lehigh, Pennsylvania State, Brandeis and Harvard Universities, NATS National Convention in Minneapolis, MN, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and annually at the Eastman School of Music. He has been an adjudicator for The Walter M. Naumburg, Joy in Singing and Concert Artist Guild competitions.

Before an audience of a few dozen artists, students, community singers and teachers of voice, Mr. Opalach offered expert feedback and guidance to four vocalists at various stages of vocal development. High-school aged soprano Giuliana Bozza has performed in ensembles and in small featured parts for several recent RLO productions. Baritone Ben Reisinger, a student of Mario Martinez, has performed roles with the opera studio at Nazareth College. Soprano Jessica Moss is a student of Constance Fee at Roberts Wesleyan College. Soprano Shaya Greathouse is a recent advanced-degree recipient at the Eastman School of Music. With Dr. Kevin Nitsch accompanying, the artists performed Italian arias of their choice, singing them completely through before going back to work over several passages in detail with Mr. Opalach’s guidance.

Explaining that his preference as a “master teacher” was to establish a conversational setting with the artist and audience, Mr. Opalach focused his comments on issues of musical line and continuity and telling details of Italian diction, while leaving aside strictly technical issues better handled by students’ individual teachers. He exhibited an infallible ear for moments where the direction of the musical phrase faltered or was interrupted. Mostly, the cause was a misplaced or unnecessary breath, or one not indicated in the text. Removing these, he taught the artists to expand phrases wherever possible, maintaining the line as first priority. “But you gotta breathe,” Jan said at one point, going on to demonstrate how to sustain the musical line, directing it across necessary breaths by means of timbral focus and dramatic intent, ensuring that the listener perceives an unbroken chain of emotion, staying involved through to the end of the phrase.

“Italians want to hear the vowels, not the consonants,” he explained more than once. He encouraged the students to wring the utmost available length in every vowel sound, making consonants late, short and energetic wherever possible, while never overlooking the natural emphasis due the many double consonants in Italian (such as in the name Turiddu). Where the singer’s vowel sound became unfocused, creating a lapse in musical line, Opalach refused to let the student progress until a uniformly shining timbre came through.

Dramatic intent was the desired end product of his coaching. Where a more simple delivery was effective, where an unduly emphasized note disrupted the sense of the scene, where an artist’s hands and arms betrayed them, or where a fundamental emotional background could have been heightened, Opalach’s specific and constructive comments helped the performers arrive at a more natural, and more powerful, expressivity. The results were quick, gratifying and evident to Several percipient questions from audience members during the final minutes of the class revealed that a new appreciation of vocal artistry would be theirs to take away.

Mr. Opalach later performed with the RLO Resident Artists and Nazareth College voice faculty in a recital of scenes, ensembles and arias, with Kevin Nitsch again accompanying. Some real learning was included in the entertainment, as master class participant Ben Reisinger joined in to sing alongside Mr. Opalach in an ensemble from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

Real joy went with the artists and audience as Opera Week activities drew to a close for 2014. Certainly many new friends were made in an atmosphere of relaxed learning and fun. Rochester is indeed fortunate to have such vocal riches available at every turn.