Brunnhildepalooza!

The art of the art song at UCI

The National Association of Schools of Music says its affiliated colleges graduated 1,271 singing majors last year and gave out another 990 degrees in piano performance.

Of course, it's not like the want ads are exactly screaming for song recitalists or their accompanists these days. And with comparable numbers of graduates hitting the streets this month, how do these young musicians compete for all the work that isn't there? Just how does somebody apply for a lieder singer's job, anyway? How many operas does a spear carrier have to log before she gets to wear Brünnhilde's horned helmet? Can an unpaid chorister find fulfillment working a day job at Discovery Zone?

Hello, young graduates! If you're a singer, finding work isn't quite what it is for the rest of us. You don't need a résumé; you need a bio. You don't do interviews; you audition. You don't work under a manager; you need one who'll work for you. And if the frustration doesn't finish you off, the competition probably will. A budding Madame Butterfly who's determined enough might not think twice about using her seppuku knife to slit a rival soprano's silver-tonsiled throat. But any singer who's really serious about keeping her career moves on the right side of the law needs a different kind of edge.

For the next two weeks, singers and piano accompanists from around the country (and a couple of other places) converge on the UC Irvine campus to sharpen skills—not knives —in the intensive workshops, master classes and celebrity recitals of Summer SongFest '99. The annual seminar, which offers professional help in the art of the classical art song to vocalists and the pianists who accompany them, attracted more than 200 applicants this year for the 60 available slots—that's 30 students per week.

UCI piano instructor Rosemary Hyler, SongFest's co-founder and chief organizer, says the program was created to bring together musicians of all levels—from students to established pros. "A lot of summer programs are only for college-aged students, but we envisioned something different," Hyler says. "Ours was conceived not just for younger students, but also for semi-professionals in opera-apprentice programs, or people who may teach in a university who would like to come back for a week and get refreshed and renewed."

What brings them to Irvine is a stellar faculty and a specialized vocal curriculum that this summer covers French chansons and English art songs, oratorio solo-style and Baroque ornamentation, the how-to's of planning programs that make audiences happy, and a survey of songs on texts by Goethe. The master classes—in which students do a song in front of their cutthroat peers, then immediately have their performance dissected by the instructor—puts them on the hot seat.

"I have to say it's stressful," says soprano Awet Andemicael, a UCI master's-degree recipient who took part in SongFest last summer. "Just the fact that you're singing in a room with all these wonderful musicians who are listening with an analytical ear . . . " And considering that Terrence McNally's Master Class was a hit with Broadway audiences, there's also potential for drama. That's why the entire festival is open to the general public for a cool $125 per week (look at it this way: the students who sweat it out onstage pay $580).

In two weeks of lecture-demonstrations and blood-and-guts performance classes with distinguished teachers, the participants hammer out the micro-miniscule details that help them sell a song, whether it's for a concert or an audition. "They're exposed to a lot of repertoire," says Hyler. "Some of the UCI students come and say to me, 'I've learned more in these two weeks than in four years of college.'"

This is SongFest's fourth summer but only its second year in Irvine. It was started by Hyler and UCLA musical-theater director John Hall and was held at UCLA its first two summers. But because it's primarily Hyler who runs the show, last year's permanent move to her turf made sense.

By any name—lied, chanson, canción, sangene—the art song is a wispy musical form that's not for everybody. A singer in a tuxedo or gown stands next to a piano, with his or her hands at his or her sides, and sings poetry—Goethe, Heine, Verlaine or Housman ruminating on moonbeams, elves, plough horses, fleas and other whims—all set to little tunes by Schubert, Wolf, DuParc or Vaughan Williams.

Besides heavy exposure to the song literature, SongFest's big draw is the faculty Hyler assembles every year. One of the regulars is her bud and longtime piano accompanist to the stars Martin Katz. Newcomer Graham Johnson, a British pianist who runs the popular Songmaker's Almanac concerts in the U.K., knows more about Schubert lieder than most singers do.

"In my opinion," Hyler says, "Martin Katz and Graham Johnson are two of the most brilliant pianists and teachers that I know of. And for me, that is the absolute strength of the program and why it attracts such a breadth of students." Such praise effectively crunches the toes of the other faculty—including versatile soprano Ruth Golden, lyric tenor and Baroque oratorio expert John Aler, Hyler, Hall, and UCI voice instructor Nina Hinson—but they probably don't mind being dissed. Accompanists never rate more than a throwaway sentence whenever the critics write their reviews, so it's a major event whenever they get the admiration they deserve.

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