Lessons from a Kiri Te Kanawa Singing Masterclass


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Lessons from a Kiri Te Kanawa Singing Masterclass

I was privileged to attend an evening of masterclasses given by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the Baxter Concert Hall in Cape Town on the 3rd of March 2020.  A masterclass, a pinnacle of tuition, is typically given in public by a musical expert, sometimes iconic names in their field, to a top student in front of an audience packed with knowledgeable people.  To be chosen to be given a masterclass at the London College of Music, say, you must be one of their most talented students.  Those who want to participate in a masterclass go through two rigorous auditions.  Only those who shine at these auditions are given the privilege of a masterclass.1  Importantly, a masterclass is not a lesson, it is a session with a master designed to accelerate the progress of the most promising performers to the highest echelon.  These classes are about the transmission of nuance, interpretation and delivery rather than good technique, which masterclass students are assumed to have already honed to a high level.  The end result, if you make it to the masterclass, is that you have an audience of the best to listen to you.  But it can be a brutal school.  Masters can be very direct in their assessment and demands.  You need a thick skin to take the public criticism that might, or rather, will come your way.  Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and such experts are ingrained in that masterclass tradition.  Four students were given masterclasses on the evening.2

Enter the first singer, a soprano who chose a Mozart aria.  She had a good voice but was rather expressionless.  In addition, she had listened to a recording of Dame Kiri’s performance of the piece and had based her interpretation on it.  Dame Kiri told the student that she sounded like her (Dame Kiri), and suggested the student studied the score and listened to the piano music and to herself rather.  The singer had to think about the piece and make it her own.3  The student was asked to repeat the aria and was encouraged to take a chance, to break the strictures she had put on the piece, but could not.  Her second performance was really a repetition of the first with a little more expression.  The performance and habit had settled in the singer’s voice and these would be tough to expunge.  Dame Kiri must have been tired on the night (Lord knows what engagements she had been dragged to all day) so let the soprano off lightly.


Next, a mezzo-soprano stepped onto the stage and gave what appeared to be a rather confident rendition of her opening aria.  It was however, delivered in an unvarying, percussive, monotonous intensity which led to Dame Kiri coming down hard on her.  She was also singing just below key, which Dame Kiri tried to correct by continually pushing a finger in the air as she sang to make her go higher.  Her pitch also faded away at the end of phrases.4  At some stage Dame Kiri obviously thought that there was too much to do on this singer’s voice.  This could no longer be a masterclass; it had to radically devolve to a lesson.  The singer was visibly shaken by Dame Kiri’s frank feedback.  When Dame Kiri saw the reaction of the singer, she clearly realised that, in addition, the student was not emotionally equipped to deal with a masterclass.  She lacked the fortitude to deal with the criticism.  But Dame Kiri was just being forthright.  After the interval, Dame Kiri must have felt for the poor singer and invited her back on stage to sing certain passages again, but instead of words, she had to substitute a simple ‘la-la-la’ to make her focus on her sounds.  It might have made all feel better, but what a come down; from a masterclass perspective, it was an embarrassment.5


The third singer, an African baritone with a powerful voice, opened with an Italian recitative followed by an aria.  A voice teacher told me that African baritones tend to press on all the notes as this is in their singing tradition.  But dynamic variation and colour is often needed in pieces of other singing traditions, and the habit of pressing on each note, once settled in the voice, is hard to uproot.  There were a few Italian language pronunciation issues, and in addition the baritone was stressing each last syllable of a word for too long, a tendency which had to be softened.  It had by now become an ingrained habit which he had to extirpate from his system.  There was also the question of appropriate emotional colouring.  In the recitative, the singer had to convey anger.  Now there are many ways to express anger (loudly, threateningly, hurtfully, etc), but the correct colour of anger was somehow not being conveyed in the recitative, which sets the mood for the aria.  If that anger is not framed properly in the recitative, the aria that follows risks falling flat.  As in acting, emotional register is all important in singing.


In summing up the baritone’s performance, Dame Kiri expressed surprise at his choice of aria.  It was a demanding piece, and she advised him not to spoil his voice on such difficult material that early in his career.  He was young and had to develop his voice until it was mature enough to handle pieces of such difficulty.6  Secondly, she told him to prepare mentally for the high note in a passage a few bars in advance.  Even better, he should not aim for the high note yet.  Instead of the high note in the passage, he should sing the note an octave lower, for example, and really work on mastering the passage over time.  Many singers tense up in preparation for the high (or low) note in a phrase, which results in the notes leading to the high note being sung badly.  Or, in relief of having successfully reached the high note, they relax completely into the notes that follow, thereby deflating the ending.  It can be very unnerving.  The lesson is that one should not spoil the manageable in addition to the demanding in a passage of variable difficulty.  Difficulties should be worked on in isolation and integrated into the passage over time.


The fourth singer, yet another soprano, had a bright and smiling personality and brought laughter back into the hall, which was a welcome change after the serious engagements of the previous three singers.  She sang a Schubert lied, one with a driving urgency to it.  Dame Kiri had many useful suggestions for her to which she responded well.  Instead of the piano doing the driving, being a millisecond ahead of the singer, Dame Kiri wanted the singer to drive the piece along instead, with insistence and intent, thus better conveying the desperation of the words.  Also, the singer’s emotional colour had to be more attuned to the piece.  The singer took the suggestions in her stride, which went a long way to releasing the tension in the concert hall.7  There was a definite change in the second rendition which was palpably racier than the first.  One now felt swept along and felt the difference.  All some people need is a nudge in the right direction.


I took away many lessons from the masterclasses.8  There was the learning and demonstration of technicalities of which I was unaware.  Every field has its demands.  Attention to detail, proper preparation, the influence of time and the fortitude required for success once again made an impression.  Most of all, it was a delight to get insights into the musical thinking of Dame Kiri, an icon of opera that I had been listening to for decades.9


  1. Take a student majoring in piano say, who wants a masterclass. He must first be recommended by his immediate teacher to audition for the masterclass, which involves performing before the piano teaching staff.  If he passes that, he must undergo a second audition before a wider committee consisting of the piano staff as well as heads of other music divisions.  It is only after being recommended by this committee that he (or she) could be accorded a masterclass.
  2. I am refraining from mentioning the names of the singers on the evening.
    I’m told that in Cape Town the selection process of students is rather less rigorous than in London or other top schools, and that the overall standard is lower.
  3. Recordings warp your perceptions of what the mind does. It is best to master the piece from the score, make it your own, then listen to recordings.  Where people do not study the score, they listen to recordings, which is a problem – this approach prevents them from ever making the piece their own.
  4. On hearing your own voice: Some singers find it difficult to hear their own voice and what it sounds like.  They produce a pitch that is, say, a quartertone off true pitch, either higher or lower but they cannot hear it – they have to be told.  Voice coaches struggle to get singers to think higher to correct for that.  The exercise involves the placement of the voice and requires the ability to place pitch correctly.
  5. A female friend who attended the masterclass told me she saw the mezzo-soprano cry in the restrooms during the interval. Yes, it’s hard.
  6. Vocal fitness. Whilst a singer’s range is more or less set by nature, it is possible to push the extremities of the voice.  Muscles that produce the voice are like other muscles in the body.  They can with training and maturity be developed and strengthened over years to reach either higher or lower notes, much like athletes develop their abilities.  Like other muscles of the body, vocal muscles can also weaken over time with age or disuse, so that notes a singer could once reach, become unattainable.  Good singers stretch their voices to their physiological limits and find the ideal placement of their voices.  Singers have to figure out where they are with their voice.  They must be aware of the holes in their knowledge, must introspect and be uncomfortably honest with themselves.
  7. Tension in the concert hall is real and tangible because empathetic members of the audience tend to identify with the students. I know I did.  I think it’s because we subconsciously project instances of trials and tribulation in our lives onto the student’s ordeal playing out before us.  The masterclass is a space of vulnerability no matter how good you are.  Audience members at a masterclass are therefore not without tension.  One tends to vicariously share the ordeal of the students, be it cringing or feeling relief along with them.
  8. My thanks go to Adrian More who shared his experiences and insight of masterclasses in general, as well as this particular evening’s technicalities with me.
  9. For your delight, here is a link to Kiri Te Kanawa singing ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QFUd7tB_a0Here she is giving a masterclass to Regula Mühlemann on June 20th 2015 at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I think Mühlemann is a fabulous singer bound for a splendid career!:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1uC32WRyqAAlternatively, to see a rehearsal of a musical production warts, swearing, frustration and all, where you can experience the sweat and struggle of getting it right, see the video clip below of the great maestro Leonard Bernstein conducting his West Side Story with a pop-up contracted orchestra in New York in 1984, with soloists Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras.  When we go to a concert, all we mostly see is the polished production.  It can be very instructive to go into the preparation and rehearsal of a work to fully appreciate the effort that goes into bringing art to us.  This is an excellent example, with a genius of a composer/conductor and great soloists – definitely worth the effort spent on it.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3SEW63LsaM