As previously noted the International Resource Centre for Performing Artists is once again running its program for young professional singers in Toronto. The program is in two parts. There was an “Encounter” (career workshop) with Brett Polegato on October 20th and there will be a concert at 7pm on November 6th at the Zoomerplex which will be broadcast by Classical 96.3. Yesterday I spent some time talking with Brett about the program, its rewards and challenges and, inevitably, we drifted off into some broader issues about careers in the opera world.
The IRCPA program is designed to help young professional singers who are no longer in a formal instructional setting or a young artists program. It’s a pretty exposed place to be with uncertain income and limited access to resources. Where, for example, can you practice or rehearse if you no longer have access to institutional resources? There’s also a lot of feedback but little of it comes from people who have successfully done what a young singer aspires to do. That’s where someone like Brett comes in. He’s been singing professionally for 25 years and makes a living just from singing; no teaching, no running arts festival, no conducting. That’s a surprisingly unusual accomplishment.
In terms of the IRCPA program it translates into a rather different kind of masterclass (and bear in mind the participants are also older and more experienced that the typical university or conservatory class). So from a technical point of view what did Brett focus on? It’s best summed up as “how to use a professional voice in a professional way”. Dealing with singers more used to singing with piano than a large orchestra there are techniques, perhaps even philosophies, that a singer can use. Don’t lay it all out in the first few phrases. Relax into the music. Let it resonate. Use maximum energy and minimum force. Tell the story with your voice and let the director take care of the “antics”. What I found interesting is that a lot of these insights came from Brett gradually moving into heavier rep (Amfortas, Kurwenal and so on) and he was trying to project this back onto singers likely singing lighter rep. I’m not a singer but I can kind of relate to this as I think about how I used my body as a rugby player, especially as I got older.
How did it work for the young singers? Very well by all accounts. They were a receptive audience, willing to try new things and see what worked for them. Maybe I can add that I heard through other channels that Brett is an “exceptionally sensitive” teacher so it’s not hard to see why people would listen.
Another focus of the IRCPA program is career advice. How does one progress as a singer and have a long and prosperous career? We talked about it at length. I think I heard two main themes. One is listening to or feeling your own voice as it develops and being prepared to make changes in technique and repertoire as you, as a person, change physically. There’s an emotional element to that too. Taking on roles when one is emotionally ready for them. It’s hard to imagine a young singer singing Amfortas. The second I think I must call “politics”. Brett’s words were “Always open as many doors as you can because they will close easily enough”. Reflecting on what happened in Toronto and to many careers when Richard Bradshaw died unexpectedly is a pretty good example of this I think. There was also just the merest hint of the price one pays being away from home all the time. I had twelve years “on the road”. Got it!
It was an interesting and thought provoking hour with a singer who has clearly reflected a lot upon his craft and his career. Toronto folks have a couple of comparativly rare chances to hear Brett sing with orchestra in the next few weeks. This Sunday he’s part of a program of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner with Pax Christi Chorale and next month he’s featuring in the TSO’s Remembrance Day concerts.