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Saturday, 1 July 2017

The (Opera) Masteclass and the Heart

Many conservatoires across the world offer masterclasses as part of the education of their students, and many of those are open to the public, at low ticket cost, or free of charge. The master class teachers are artists in the field who have established their high level of ability beyond reasonable doubt; in many cases, they may be beyond the peak of their own performance career, allowing them time to expand into teaching. In this post I focus on opera master classes, as I have attended a number of these as a member of the audience. I expect that some of my observations can be transferred to masterclasses for instrumentalists.

In terms of arrangement, a master might visit a conservatoire to work with a selected number of students. Often, six students in a three-hour session get up to 30 minutes to work with the master, on one or two pieces (song or aria) they will have chosen and practiced with the piano accompanist beforehand. In many cases, the accompanist is a fellow-student. There is probably a very tough selection process for many students interested in being involved in a master class, and students are on record emphasising the honour it is for them to be selected, and how much they practice for the event. There are exceptions here, of course: at one masterclass I attended, the master concluded the session with one singer by asking bluntly (more saddened than annoyed) whether he was prepared to admit that he had not put in many hours of rehearsal with his accompanist, and the student did admit this. In other scenarios, young singers would attend a residence of several days with a master, again following a selection process. Those masterclasses are predominantly private, with a public showcase of masterclass and concert recital at the end of a week or two.

There is a certain etiquette around masterclasses: the student presents the rehearsed song or aria uninterrupted, while the master listens and observes closely. The master and audience applaud, then the master addresses aspects of technique and interpretation, often together. At the end, the student sings (part of) the song or aria again, and in all cases I have observed live or on video, the singer’s performance is much better after having taken on board the master’s advice.

Research into the masterclass has covered aspects of expertise, apprenticeship, etiquette, embodied pedagogy, the master’s experience and personal authority, the impact of the students’ experience, gender and level of study on their evaluation of a masterclass, and general views of students about their experience.

In a recent publication, “Towards a Theatre of the Heart” I explored the heart in relation to spirituality in general terms, and then considered the relevance of the insights of that exploration for theatre and performance practice. I coined the phrase theatre of the heart, and provided an analysis of its manifestations with reference to non-linear performance (Baumgartner’s Catch me if you can: Euridice 2012 Reloaded and Mike Pearson/Mike Brookes Iliad), atmosphere (Peter Brook), love (Zoo Indigo), and wisdom and age (Much Ado About Nothing, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, 2013). The purpose of this consideration was to re-assess the nature of the experiences of creating theatre and of watching a performance in a way that does not seek to reduce it to brain activities, but allows a wider perspective that in turn can be shown not to rule out the dimension of brain activity as mutually exclusive.

From my experience of live masterclasses, they work best when the master teaches with an open heart.


Atkinson, Paul, Richard Watermeyer & Sara Delamont. 2013. Expertise, authority and embodied pedagogy: operatic masterclasses. British Journal of Sociology of Education 34 (4): 487-503.

Bærenholdt, Jørgen Ole, Jonathan Everts, Brynhild Granås, Nicky Gregson & Ruth L. Healey. 2010. Performing Academic Practice: Using the Master Class to Build Postgraduate Discursive Competences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 34 (2): 283-298.

Creech, Andrea, Helena Gaunt, Sue Hallam, Linnhe Robertson. 2009. Conservatoire students’ Perceptions of Masterclasses. British Journal of Music Education 26 (3): 315-331.

Hanken, Ingrid Maria and Marion Long. Master classes – What do they offer? Oslo:  NMH-publikasjoner 2012:8.

Lalli, Richard. 2004. Master Plan. Opera News 69(1): 24-26.

Long, Marion, Susan Hallam, Andrea Creech, Helena Gaunt, Linnhe Robertson. 2011. Do prior experience, gender, or level of study influence music students’ perspectives on master classes? Psychology of Music 40(6): 683 – 699.

Long, Marion, Andrea Creech, Helena Gaunt, Susan Hallam, Linnhe Robertson. 2012. Blast from the past: Conservatoire students’ experiences and perceptions of public master classes. Musicae Scientiae 16 (3): 286 – 306. 

Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel. 2017. "Towards a Theatre of the Heart", Annals of the University of Bucharest: Philosophy Series 66 (1): 199-221.

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