The Generosity of Gwyneth Jones: Her Masterclass at the Royal College of Music

The Gwyneth Jones Masterclass at the Royal College of Music

Anyone lucky enough to have heard Dame Gwyneth Jones will be familiar with her give-all approach to her work; generosity is the word, but it is a particular species of generosity, one which sounds unstoppable, forever reaching for greater heights, and above all, is informed by a formidable intellect, which has a command of German, Italian and English, not just as languages, but as musical nuances and worlds of expression which can continually surprise through the joys of exploration.

All these qualities were to the fore in Dame Gwyneth’s Masterclass in the packed Britten Theatre of the Royal College of Music on Wednesday 18th October 2017. The audience was predominantly students of singing and their teachers, with a few internal and external critics. 

She began by emphasising that being an opera singer is not a job you can do by halves. It demands your whole. Mind and body. And making those two things one. She said that the competition in the field was much greater than when she started out herself in Zurich in 1962.  She said she was paid a pittance by Swiss Opera, frequently, appearing in operas that she had to learn on a night-train, to step in next day to replace an indisposed singer. I mean this, she said, There will be moments when you will need to sacrifice a night’s sleep to appear in a role next night which is new to you. 

She then announced something which I didn’t know: she began life as a mezzo. That is also true of the other great Welsh soprano, Margaret Price. But while Dame Margaret regarded her early years as a mezzo as a waste of time (it wasn’t; she was taught by Charles Kennedy Scott) Dame Gwyneth always understood that training a voice from a solid lower basis, then building it up, gives it greater security in later life. Both women were formidable linguists. How is it that the Celts are almost always more linguistically gifted than the Anglo Saxons? (Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett both followed at the same time, a similar trajectory from mezzo to soprano. Not to mention Ghena Dimitrova, who in her native Bulgaria sang Aida and Amneris on alternative nights.)

I must now set out the criteria (cultural baggage) which I am using to try to make critical sense of what I saw and heard at this Masterclass. If this is of no interest to you, please skip this and the following six paragraphs. Much of the material is necessarily autobiographical.

In 1959 as a British Council Arts Officer I was asked to assist John Barbirolli, who had been invited to conduct Aida at the Rome Opera. Sir John, who spoke a Venetian which even the Venetians had trouble understanding, undertook this appointment with some trepidation. He had been allowed to come with his own choice of protagonist, Gwyneth Jones. There was a remarkable, friendly relationship between singer and conductor. I’m not letting any secrets out of the bag when I say that one of the problems of this period was keeping Sir John away from the whisky bottle. Gwyneth and Evelyn Rothwell (oboist and Lady Barbirolli) would simply reprimand him as a naughty boy when he erred too far in this direction. It worked too. He listened to these two women for whom he had great respect and affection. Gwyneth’s Italian was so good that when the orchestra couldn’t understand Sir John’s Venetian, she would jump in with clear, precise Italian “translations” (supposedly my job!), so – unusually for a singer – she was getting applause from the orchestra before they properly heard her singing.

What is indelibly imprinted on my aural memory of that Aida is the astonishing warmth of the Jones voice, the velvety legato, the musicality of the Italian vowels and consonants, with the last always pinpointing and shaping the phrase and plumbing a sense of drama and beauty of tone I had not heard in any of the many other Aidas I had seen. The stage director asked Gwyneth to stay on stage right up to the end of the cantabile prayer ‘Numi, pietà’, at the end of the first scene. He was quite sure that if, as Verdi instructs, she leaves the stage during the final phrase, the pianissimo ending would not be heard. At the lunch break, Sir John said, Would you please tell the stage director that Gwyneth will be following Verdi’s instructions here and under this conductor’s baton and with this voice, Aida’s pianissimo ending will be clearly audible on the last row of the gallery. So it was. The Jones voice projection was actually more powerful the quieter it became. What a formidable technique! Dispatched with seeming ease.

The Radames was Gianfranco Cecchele, and as is the way with Italian tenors, he arrived late in the rehearsal schedule. He had sung this role all over Europe. What need had he to rehearse? He stepped onto the stage and belted out ‘Celeste Aida’. In heroic-tenor full voice. Or began to. Sir John stopped the orchestra and pointed out that Verdi required it to be sung piano.

-But if I sing piano I will not be heard above the orchestra, maestro.

-You leave the orchestra to me and please sing it as marked by the composer. I promise you I will take care of the orchestra.

And so the conductor did. And the singer learned of the magic that comes when you observe the composer’s simple marking.

My other treasured memory of Dame Gwyneth was her Lady Macbeth at the Florence Opera; this time I was music critic for the Paris-based Herald Tribune and RAI international. Verdi wrote Macbeth for Florence and there is a fascinating correspondence between the theatre and composer. The theatre was thrilled to have procured the services of Giuditta Pasta (the original Norma) as Lady Macbeth. But Verdi protested, Please get rid of her. Madame Pasta has a beautiful voice, but my Lady Macbeth must have a big, ugly voice! (Verdi even went to the trouble of marking notes he would like sung out of tune!).

Leyla Gencer, who at the beginning of her career had rather a beautiful voice but foolishly she was among a large group of singers who did everything make her voice sound like Callas. The result was indeed a big, ugly voice, arguably what Verdi had in mind for the drama of the role. Leyla was sitting behind me and scheduled to take over later performances following Gwyneth’s. The Turkish soprano was tut-tutting all through Gwyneth’s sublime delivery, especially the pianissimo top D flat at the end of the sleepwalking scene. There was no hint of anything ugly in the Jones Lady Macbeth. The Florentines are the toughest audience in Italy to please, but on this occasion they were ecstatic, the decibels of applause only ever greater when Caballé, some twenty years later, sang ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ (Il trovatore).

Verdi had been bowled over at Rome’s Teatro Valle when he saw the great Italian actress, Adelaida Ristori as Lady Macbeth. The Lady is not the protagonist in Shakespeare’s play (in Shakespeare’s time the part was played by a pre-pubescent boy) but Ristori’s performance overwhelmed all the other players and Verdi is said to have left the theatre saying this is not a prose play but an opera and that woman has already written it in my mind. (Ristori later played the part in London where, among others, she overwhelmed George Eliot. Later again, she learned the role in English and toured the USA with it.) Meanwhile back in London, the Australian actress, Judith Anderson, who made a career playing ominous women, stunned audiences with her performance of the evil Lady. Readers will remember Dame Judith’s upstaging performance as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Apologies for all this cultural baggage, but that is what I took with me to the Jones Masterclass. Now to the four young singers that made up that class.

The kindest and most humane thing a critic can do on hearing a young, aspiring singer, unable to depart from what might be called the starting post, is to write nothing at all. There may be a host of reasons why this happens, not least of which are nervousness and insecurity. Both were in evidence. But tragedy piles on tragedy in such a situation. Dame Gwyneth’s legendary generosity overwhelmed the singer. As the old adage says, too much of a virtue can easily become a vice. And for all Gwyneth’s good intentions, this is what happened. The more she tried to help the singer in such fundamental matters as the placing of the voice, the worse the poor child became. You can see that I am determined not even to name the gender of the participant. The Masterclass was advertised from 2pm to 5pm with four participants and one twenty-minute interval as well as an introduction with biographical input from Gwyneth Jones herself. That, you can see, allows about forty minutes a lesson where each student is asked to present two pieces. But having failed to get any significant response from the first piece, Madame soldiered on with the second, which led to more torture, and brought us close to two hours before we moved on. My apologies to all for this integrated report.

The arrival of the second participant felt like going from darkest night to brightest day. 24-year-old Timothy Edlin began as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, took a first class honours degree in music in Manchester University and is now doing a Masters at the RCM. He arrived with the Strauss lied, ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ and Leporello’s catalogue song from Don Giovanni.  Talk about a voice which is perfection! His command of the German language would rival Dame Gwyneth’s, as would his intellect. He is so much into the lied as to become it. The legato is lush and gloriously unforced with a breath control of such excellence that he appears not to need to breath at all. All this is studiedly informed by a formidable intellect, a translation of sound into the most illuminating sense. Aren’t we lucky to be hearing such wonderful voices today?  chirped Gwyneth to the audience. She should have thanked Timothy and urged him to go on exactly with what he was already doing. Then added, I have nothing to teach you, the words used by the Principal of the Guildhall School when Moiseiewitsch’s elder brother took Benno to an audition there. Alas she didn’t take this line. Her generosity wanted to find something to help along this outstanding talent. And yes, dear Gwyneth, a touch more on the German consonants would pinpoint even more the peaks and troughs of the phrases without anyway sacrificing the lush legato. He welcomed the idea, understood your point and was finishing your sentences. But you know as well as I do, dear Gwyneth, that tomorrow he will go right back to what he was doing, for he has made this music his own and is completely relaxed into it. Richard Strauss’s soul has become his own. And he is not about to give that up any time soon. Nor would you want him to.

After spending an eternity on the t’s and g’s, you then asked a RCM authority if there was time to hear the Mozart. The answer was no as the interval had already been reduced from twenty minutes to ten. I’m sure the audience would have sacrificed their interval in its entirely to hear the Edlin/Leporello catalogue song. But it was not to be. I was beside myself with rage for being so cruelly deprived of this pleasure.

Timothy Edlin

Theodore Platt made a noteworthy impression with Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star (Tannhäuser) where Wagner becomes unashamedly Verdiano. Mr Platt enjoyed himself delivering this. So did we. A singer’s enjoyment of his art is always a sure-fire way of his communicating. His voice was admirably focused, so comfortably filled the small theatre. That comfortable is key. It felt like he had got Wolfram under his belt. The roundness of his German vowels was perfection. But Gwyneth was not happy with his consonants. Exaggerate them, she instructed (and even demonstrated) they have a long way to go when they leave your mouth. I smiled. I bet Theodore had not thought of that one.

The only tenor in the class, Dominic Bevan, is also in the RCM Masters programme, having studied in Paris and started his own vocal group, The Victoria Consort. He too began with a Strauss lied, ‘Zueignung’ (Schwarzkopf’s preferred final encore piece; you knew there would be no others after that terrifyingly top, high, final note!). It was, in fact, in the top notes where the shine tended to go off Mr Bevan’s voice. The lower notes had an attractive wholesomeness. Dominic also produced the finest pianist of the evening, Leanne Singh-Levett. ‘Zueignung’ is as demanding for the piano as it is for the voice. And Ms Singh-Levett delivered the goods with great aplomb. Applause from Dame Gwyneth and the rest of us.

Dominic has already sung the Part of Tamino at Westminster Opera’s Zauberflöte in August 2017. He gave us the first aria, as Tamino is gazing at his lover’s portrait. This is supposed to be a declaration of love, said Dame Gwyneth, but you don’t sound too sure of it!  True enough. Moreover, she instructed Dominic to stand with his feet facing forwards, opened to shoulder length. (This is the sure posture for opening all the bodies articulations, as I know from my morning Chi Gong classes.) She again warned him not to hold his head back, as this too would block the sound on the high notes. And anyway he should be looking down at Pamina’s picture, which inspires his song. To all this excellent advice I would only add a recommendation for him to listen to Nicolai Gedda’s recording of the arietta: that is the sound you should aim for, sir.

I managed a brief reminiscence of the Rome Aida with Gwyneth after the course and expressed my commiseration of her failure to get Lottery Money to turn Adelina Patti’s former home, Craig-y-Nos (outside Swansea) into a training centre for young singers. But there is another connection with Patti for Gwyneth. When Patti’s third husband sold his wife’s possessions, in that sale was the diamond tiara that the Emperor of Russia had presented to Patti. Eva Turner, present at the sale, purchased it. I doubt if Eva had ever worn it. She then left it to Gwyneth in her will. I asked Gwyneth if she had ever worn it. Of course, she beamed, I wear it all the time!

 Jack Buckley

For more about study or events at the RCM click here.

3 thoughts on “The Generosity of Gwyneth Jones: Her Masterclass at the Royal College of Music”

  1. These masterclasses are learning environments where performers are at their most vulnerable. By all means critique professional shows, but would you critique them during rehearsals? That is the equivalent of writing reviews for students during their classes.
    [This comment has been edited.]

    • There is a need for those commenting on this news item to appreciate this was santioned by the organisers who also supplied the photo. It is not unusual to write up masterclasses and this was a PUBLIC event and not a PRIVATE one!

Comments are closed.