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Interview with the 2014 Merolini

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Few traditions in the art of singing have proven so valuable and resilient as San Francisco's Merola Opera Program. Teaching the secrets of legitimate music-making since 1957, former Merolini include: Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, and Deborah Voigt. This Saturday afternooon at the Everett Auditorium in San Francisco, Merola presents Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' (ticket information), conducted by Martin Katz. Below is a transcript of our recent conversation with 2014 Merolini, bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot and soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho.

EH: Please describe your musical background – at what age did you begin thinking about the problem of vocal technique ?

Talbot: My parents told me that when I was four, while watching Disney’s Fantasia, I would go to the kitchen, get a recycling bin, and conduct on it standing right next to the TV. That’s the earliest musical recollection that I have (laughs). My father always had NPR on in our house, and so I was raised with classical music and opera in my early life. I played the trumpet until I was a sophomore in high school, and that same year, I began voice lessons at the University of Northern Iowa, which is in my hometown.

I didn’t consider vocal technique until I was in high-school. Guys are often told to hold off a bit on that, to wait for our voices, but I knew some of the fundamentals of technique going in – don’t get tight in the throat, etc. I’ve only studied in-depth with one teacher, John Hines, who’s a bass-baritone as well. He has a really good foundation of how the mechanism works, and he’s always been very encouraging, helping to keep me in-check with respect to repertoire, where my voice is, etc. He has cared for me like a member of my family, and whenever I have a question about the voice, I can text-message him or write to him on Facebook (laughs).

Ho: I’m actually the first musician in my family. My mother told me how much I loved to sing at the age of five, and so she put me in a children’s choir two years later, in Taiwan. I began taking voice lessons at the age of sixteen, and sang in amateur choirs until I was twenty. I did my masters at Eastman, my artist diploma at CCM, and just moved to New York last year.

I think I was sixteen when I began thinking and working on technique, but it wasn’t until I was twenty-six that I realized and understood what my teachers were doing for me. My teacher at Eastman, Kathryn Cowdrick, is the one who brought me into the opera world. We didn’t always talk about opera and technique at our lessons, but it was often about drama, theater, how your body language affects the audience, etc, and that has helped me a lot, actually.

EH: Auditions are a never-ending process for most singers. What advice would you give to students who suffer through rounds of rejection ? How do you deal with the nerves that are so much a part of this business ?

Ho: Auditions are a never-ending learning process. I started doing auditions about three years ago, and most of them were not very successful. But it was actually a way of learning about myself. I usually feel very nervous about five minutes before I get on stage, but I try to be a story-teller, to have my audience listen to my story, and this somehow allows me to really enjoy the moments on stage.

Talbot: The advice I’ve been given is to cast out your net, and to just keep casting it out. Hopefully, you’ll get a bite, then a couple more, and suddenly, you’re building your resume, which makes you a bit more desirable. There’s never a thrown-away audition – unless you actually throw it away (laughs) – because you can learn from every experience.

When I was really young, I would always be a little nervous on stage. It was actually easier to sing for a group of people I didn’t know than for a group of my peers. But, as with most things, the more you do it, the more you get used to it. One thing I do to pump myself up before going on stage is to listen to specific music. Do you remember Hulk Hogan’s wrestling tape ? Well, I actually listen to that before I go on! Once you feel like you’re on top of the world... (laughs)

EH: Have you experienced a notable difference in your preparation, perhaps a certain confidence in the training that you’ve received at Merola ? And have there been moments of despair here ?

Talbot: They put a lot of stress on the acting here, actually. In the first two weeks, they bring in an acting coach – since I’ve been here, it’s been Chuck Hudson - and for five straight days, we have three-hour classes with him. Every day, we’re learning the various processes of acting, and by the end of the day, we realize just how much we’ve learned. It’s amazing how much of it sticks!

I remember my first concert back at school, after my first year at Merola, and I was standing in the wings before going on stage. One of the difficulties of performance is to keep things fresh, even after practicing and rehearsing it so many times. And there, I suddenly had an epiphany of what Chuck had said. Everything felt more organic, like it was the first time I was doing it. The performance went really well, and the teachers told me, ‘Where the hell did that come from?!’.

People will say that opera is sort of ‘park and bark’, where you just stand there and sing it. But I feel that over the past two years at Merola, I now have more things going on in my head that make me more active as a singer and performer, things we’ve talked about in acting classes - why we’re reacting, what the initial feeling and post-feelings are, etc. I’ve definitely become more self-aware as a person in my role and as a singer.

Ho: I think what’s really wonderful is that Merola allows us to do whatever we want with respect to the acting, and if we go overboard, they let us know immediately. I think they also build up the ideas that we do have. Language for me is also another problem. After learning the Italian, I have to learn it in English, and then I have to translate it to Chinese (laughs). I also think my voice has improved here. We have coaching sessions with different teachers, voice lessons, and I think my voice is just getting bigger and stronger after these eight weeks.

EH: Speaking of evolution, I’d love to hear you speak about your principal roles in Don Giovanni this year. How have they affected you in your development and in your lives beyond the stage ?

Talbot: I’m singing Masetto, who’s of the lower class (laughs). Don Giovanni comes in and swipes my love interest away, so my character is upset, frustrated, and often unhappy – understandably so. In some sense, we all knew somebody in high-school who was the bully, and I drew from experiences like that. I’ve never gone totally Daniel Day-Lewis on a role, but there have been times when you get so intense with a character that it takes time after the rehearsal for things to dissipate. Masetto’s quite a stern character, and I’ve found that immediately following a rehearsal, if somebody bumps into me on the street, I find my fuse to be a little shorter than it normally is (laughs).

Ho: Donna Elvira is a well-educated woman, noble, but not at the top. She tries to have Don Giovanni come back to her, to save him, even after she learns who he really is. She’s really the only person who’s very religious, someone who dedicates herself to a man. I don’t have this type of personal experience, so I try to take my friends’ experiences (laughs). But this character has definitely affected me strongly over the past few days. I actually woke up and suddenly felt very, very sad – I didn’t know why – and I cried! I felt the role was somehow changing my life.

EH: On that note, who are some of the great voices of the past who’ve inspired you ? What element of their craft has really made an impression on you ?

Ho: For me, without a doubt, I would have to say, Maria Callas. Some have noted that her voice isn’t perfect, but for me, the expression of her singing is perfect. As opera singers, of course the acting is very important, but the most important thing of all has to be the voice, and Callas is my role-model in that respect.

Talbot: I’m a huge fan of bass-baritone Samuel Ramey. His voice is always perfectly lined up, and you rarely ever hear him miss a note in recordings. He’s sung it all, and very well, too: Rossini, Mozart, Handel, etc. I also enjoy that he’s from a small town in Kansas, as I’m from a small town in Iowa (laughs).

EH: What are your thoughts on the security and future of the art form ?

Ho: I think as an opera singer today, it’s very important to equip ourselves with everything, and that’s what Merola does so well. The world of opera is growing on an international level, and interest is growing especially in Asia. I love telling stories, and I really enjoy working with others. This art form is important because it’s a combination of great art – from the costume design, to the architecture and painting, to the singing and the acting. You know, I was so moved when I heard a recent performance at the MET of Madame Butterfly, and it just brought me to tears. It’s the role I dream of, and I really hope to do that someday.

Talbot: That’s interesting, because I think so many people are now in disagreement over what opera needs versus what audiences want: traditional concepts, spins, etc. People are pulling it in every direction. All good things take time, and I think opera is no different. A beautiful voice used to be enough for audiences, but in the twentieth century, as performances became more standardized, there were greater expectations. Things are now under a constant microscope, and the world is much more connected than it once was. Society is overstimulated by advertisement, sex-appeal, and you have to be everything all at once. I would personally rather give the nod to someone who really sings and moves through the voice than someone who looks more the part, and doesn’t move as much through the music. If you look around, there are some very wonderful up-and-coming singers, and so I don’t worry about opera in that sense.

EH: Karen, Rhys, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you both. Best of luck to you in the coming weeks.

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