Long before primitive men crafted trumpets from animal horns and sea shells, created a harp from a hunter’s bow and carved a primitive flute from the bone of a bear, the human voice was the primary source of musical expression. The ultimate instrument, it projects emotions through its versatility in sound, pitch, tone, texture, range, timbre and resonance.
To explore the rich art of singing, the Kennedy Center is devoting this weekend to American Voices. For three days, the various vocal genres and the training, technology, health, pedagogy and business aspects of singing careers will be explored and savored through master classes, symposiums and a star-studded concert.
The event was first proposed by American opera diva Renee Fleming, who began her illustrious career singing jazz. Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for community engagement, worked with her to develop and coordinate the programs.
Along with moderating the symposiums and master classes, Miss Fleming will host and sing in Saturday’s concert with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by NSO principal pops conductor Steven Reineke. Her fellow performers include bass-baritone Eric Owens, jazz artists Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, country/bluegrass musician Alison Krauss, Broadway star Sutton Foster, pop singers Josh Groban and Ben Folds, gospel singer Kim Burrell and other outstanding vocalists.
“This festival is a remarkable collection of committed and tenacious artists. We want to give the audience a window into the vocal disciplines that connect each,” said Mr. Ross. “As the curator and driving force of the project, [Miss Fleming] has been with us from soup to nuts. A major challenge was pulling together key artists in each genre and planning the master classes that will be available to everyone. We’re thrilled that we’re looking at our A plan because all the artists we wanted accepted. Although some of the experts participating are not so well known by the general public as are the stars, they are tops in their individual fields.”
The 21 specialists range from conservatory chairs, producers, physicians, opera company directors and artist managers to the heads of record and casting companies. Their knowledge will be plumbed at six master classes and three symposiums: Vocal Health and Illness on Friday, the Business and Technology of Popular Singing Today on Saturday, and Voice Training Today on Sunday.
The two Friday master classes are with Eric Owens and Dianne Reeves. The Saturday sessions are with Alison Krauss and Ben Folds, while the Sunday sessions are led by Sutton Foster and Kim Burrell. All are available to the public.
Few artists are more eager to guide the next generation of singers than Miss Foster. A two-time Tony Award winner (and five-time nominee), she has led many master classes and workshops, taught at New York University’s New Studio and for the past eight years has worked with the students at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., as coach and stage director. Upon delivering the school’s graduation speech in 2012, she received an honorary doctorate in fine arts.
“I especially cherish my time there,” she told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “I meet the students as freshmen and see them all the way through their senior year. As a member of the faculty, I’m currently teaching a class via Skype. While I sit in my living room, my students sing for me, and I’m able to critique them on the spot.
“The whole concept of American Voices is really cool. I look forward to sharing experiences with artists I admire and sitting in on the other workshops. My own will be a vocal performance class for four students and several others who are auditing. The subject is song interpretation, with a focus that’s more about acting.
“The number one advice I share with aspiring performers is to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity. You must never set limitations because the best way to learn is by doing. The hardest thing for me was to become self-confident. I still struggle with it and am not alone. It’s a constant worry for many artists. No matter how successful you become, it’s important to appreciate your singularity and to find a balance in your life.”
Miss Sutton finds balance when she is not performing or teaching by painting. She signs and numbers her imaginative, detailed prints of a moment in time or a portrait of nature. A percentage of all proceeds goes to charity.
Come spring, her painting will take a back seat to her upcoming Broadway venture, “Violet.” This past summer, she performed the Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley musical for one night only in New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series. Miss Foster won her first Tony for her starring role as Millie Dillmont in the Tesori-composed musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” (She earned her second for “Anything Goes.”)
“The composers are like family because we worked together in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and ‘Shrek,’ so I’m excited about taking the show to Broadway,” Miss Foster said. “I recorded one of the songs and sang another in concert. Performing in ‘Violet’ longer than one night will be a joy.”
WHAT: American Voices concert, festival hosted by Renee Fleming
WHERE: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW
WHEN: Nov. 22-24, concert Nov. 23 at 8 p.m.
TICKETS: Concert $29-$225, each master session $38, each symposium $15, festival package $299
PHONE: 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324