- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Washington Opera offered a master class Saturday to many of the young singers in the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. Offering the class was former operatic superstar Shirley Verrett. The event was held at the company’s rehearsal facility at 6925 Willow St. NW in Takoma Park.

One of the contemporary opera scene’s great singers, Miss Verrett sang both mezzo and soprano roles ranging from Carmen to Norma and was the leading lady for many of the 20th century’s greatest tenors, including Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. She also was one of the first black opera singers to achieve truly international renown. Now retired from opera, she is serving as the James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she has taught since 1996.

Conducted for a largely invited audience of about 150 guests, Saturday’s master class was the kind of event that needs to be seen to be appreciated. Usually helmed by a major visiting artist, a master class allows young singers or musicians already achieving at a high level to gain access to some of the most arcane secrets of the trade. At the same time, the audience learns just how much work and fine-tuning go into a superb performance. An added bonus for singers and audience alike are anecdotes, lessons and stories from the guest artist’s past.

Working with Miss Verrett during the master class were most of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, including mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema; sopranos Maria Jooste, Barbara Quintiliani and Jessica Swink; and baritones Thomas Beard and Lee Poulis. Each singer performed an aria, which was then analyzed by Miss Verrett, who occasionally had the singers practice individual snippets employing some of her own special techniques.

Miss Verrett paid special attention to some aspects of operatic singing that may not have been intuitively obvious to the layman. For example, most opera fans know a well-trained diaphragm is crucial to the support of a vocalist’s instrument. However, Miss Verrett coached the singers not to neglect the back part of the diaphragm. Paying some attention to that muscle area can make tonal production easier and less stressful.

Miss Verrett also tried to get each singer to allow the tip of the tongue to drop forward naturally on certain vowel and diphthong sounds so the tongue wouldn’t drop back and block projection of the sound. Conceptually, this seemed a trivial issue, but when the singers were able to pull it off, encouraged by Miss Verrett, the difference in clarity and projection of sound was dramatic.

In addition to conducting the master class, Miss Verrett also is on tour promoting her new autobiography, “I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer” (John Wiley & Sons), which was written with professor Christopher Brooks of Virginia Commonwealth University. After the master class, she signed copies of her book, which were snapped up quickly by a long line of audience members and admirers.

In her book, the New Orleans native tells an inspirational story of overcoming racism and religious, family and health problems to rise to a nearly unmatched pinnacle of achievement in a musical genre that only recently has seen a major influx of black singers. She singles out for special praise some of the conductors who helped her most along the way, including Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta and Georges Pretre.

“It’s a story of my life path through the artistic world, where I am from, and the people I’ve met on the way,” she says. “It’s a career I chose. Or perhaps I should say, it chose me.”

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