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Carol Vaness teases out the essence of comedy in her Merola Master Class

Talya Lieberman as Semele under the spell of Juno's mirror
Talya Lieberman as Semele under the spell of Juno's mirror
by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

Among the vocalists currently participating in the Merola Opera Program, one who made a particularly deep impression last month was soprano Talya Lieberman. Her depiction of Semele’s vanity under the spell of Juno’s magic mirror involved the rapid-fire delivery of one comic turn after another, all delightfully coupled with her command of coloratura fireworks. This was a welcome reminder of just how funny Handel’s comic operas could be.

Lieberman was the first trainee to be coached last night in the Master Class run by soprano Carol Vaness. She chose to present “Quando m’en vo’” (best known as “Musetta’s waltz”) from Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. Once again she was taking on comedy, but in an entirely different context. Rather than a “monologue,” this aria is embedded in a “crowd scene” at the Cafe Momus. Musetta is with her “sugar daddy of the evening;” but her heart is with the painter Marcello, even if they had broken up after a fight. She sees Marcello with his friends across the room and is determined to attract his attention.

Thus, both Musetta and Semele are motivated by the same foundation of vanity. However, their respective operas are over a hundred years apart; and things have decidedly changed. One could appreciate the nature of that change in Vaness’ approach to coaching the physical side of Lieberman’s delivery. I was rather impressed with her judgment. Vaness seemed to be sufficiently pleased with Lieberman’s voice to throw almost all of her attention into her acting. She probed Lieberman with questions of the dramatic setting to establish a clear context for the aria. She then used that context to build up a basic lexicon of movement tropes, concentrating more on the full body under the assumption that the gestures would then take care of themselves.

Watching Vaness at work and then bearing witness to the gradual emergence of Musetta’s character was as exciting an experience as seeing this particular scene performed in context. It was also a stimulating reminder of how many “nuts and bolts” go into giving a convincing account of even some of the most familiar episodes in opera. As Lieberman gradually grew into her part, it was tempting to think of how she would manage in a full performance of Puccini’s opera.