Helen Wallace goes to Italy to join students at the prestigious summer school conceived by Georg Solti
11am and the sun’s heat is already fierce over the Maremma on Tuscany’s south-western coast. Looking out on to the landscape of pines and shimmering reeds are ten apprehensive young singers, awaiting the arrival of Angela Gheorghiu. We are at the Georg Solti Accademia di Bel Canto, a unique summer school for singers on the cusp of an operatic career. They’ve come from Armenia, Austria, London, Portugal, Poland, Turkey and Russia, to immerse themselves in Italian language, culture and opera, from Rossini to Puccini via Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.
Alongside intensive coaching with vocal coach Paolo Speca, artistic director Jonathan Papp of London’s Royal Academy of Music, and language coach Corradina Caporello, they’ve already enjoyed master classes with conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge and tenor Dennis O’Neill, from which they are all still buzzing. Somehow the prospect of Gheorghiu is the most intimidating, not least because she has never agreed to teach before. A brief flurry and suddenly the diminutive diva sweeps in, in a long halter-neck sundress and shades.
Speaking in sotto voce Italian she asks the singers to sing for her one by one. It soon transpires not everyone understands, provoking her first point: fluent Italian is vital for this repertoire – no phonetic by-pass will do it.
First up is Gulnara Shafigullina, a formidable soprano who studied in St Petersburg, and is currently in her final year at the Amsterdam Conservatory. She sings the ‘E strano…’ scene from La Traviata, no mean feat at that early hour, followed by the elegantly looping lines of ‘Tacea la notte placida’ from Trovatore. Shafigullina has an impressive core to her voice, and a delicate bel canto, but Gheorghiu wants her to work on her Italian enunciation. ‘Show in your body what you are singing, find the honey in your voice, a rounder sound, conquer us!’ she exhorts Jenny Stafford, a bright, silvery young English soprano.
A performance of the beautiful ‘Dal labbro il canto’ from Falstaff by Portuguese tenor Luis Gomez elicits purring praise: ‘Ah, here is a good example of latin style for you all.’ True, enough, Gomez, a Guildhall graduate poised to start at the Opera Studio, has the sun in his voice, and a striking tenderness. Gulbin Gunay is already a member of Istanbul Opera, but wants to be heard outside Turkey. No wonder: her soprano has a burning quality, shot with myriad colours, and she gives a ravishing performance of Puccini’s ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’. ‘Almost there, you are almost there!’, encourages Gheorghiu, ‘but you must pace yourself, don’t give so much to every note’.
Ross Ramgobin, 26, came to opera after a degree in English and Drama. He’s at a disadvantage to the long-term music students, and but he knows how to move an audience, as his ‘Questo amor’ shows. Fellow Royal Academy vocal student Sarah Jane Lewis elicits a ‘Wow!’ from Gheorghiu with Mascagni’s ‘Son porchi fiori’. A Countess in the making, she’s in the process of moving her darkly liquescent voice from mezzo to soprano. Austrian Christina Gansch, 22, who was belting out ‘Fame!’ on the beach the previous night in an impromptu concert, charms us with an alert, witty aria from Un ballo in maschera.
After lunch, Angela gets down to the nitty gritty. She breathes the air of the theatre, taking them through the shaping of roles, beginning with Mimi: ‘Throw away all that woman-stuff: she is young, young, young! Be a girl! I want to hear that in your voice.’
It’s a daunting prospect, making it in the opera world. These singers have to negotiate visas, corruption, cuts, competition, health issues, poverty… Georg Solti was acutely aware of the chasm that opens up when singers graduate, which was why he had planned to set up this project at his summer home in Castiglione della Pescaia, where it’s been based for nine years. It’s proved an important stepping-stone for many. Former alumni include Jurgita Adamonyté, who’s sung Cherubino and Dorabella at Covent Garden, Jung Soo Yun, who’ll play Rimbaud in their forthcoming production of Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, baritone Viktor Rud, (La Scala, Hamburg and Berlin Staatsoper), Ukrainian Eleonora Vindau (Mariinsky Theatre), Matilda Paulsson (Helsinki, Hanover and Stockholm) – and Gareth Malone, who joined one of the earliest courses as a tenor.
For a proportion of singers, like Malone, these intensive weeks will make them realise a career in opera is not for them, and that in itself is valuable. For others – well, look out for Luis Gomez in the Peacock Theatre this September, singing Jenik in The Bartered Bride…