WHITE PLAINS. You might not expect this city to offer much in the way of advanced training for opera singers, and for 11 months of the year, you would be right. But not in June, when the Renata Scotto Opera Academy takes up residence here at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, inside the shell of a renovated building the locals remember as the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The faculty includes top musical staff from the Metropolitan and the New York City operas, as well as guest lecturers on bel canto, acting and the physiology of the voice, whose knowledge complements and reinforces Ms. Scotto's own.
But the face on banners by the entrance is that of Ms. Scotto, now 71. Renata Scotto: junior colleague of Maria Callas; prima donna of the Met from the 1960's well into the 80's; coach and confidante of divas of the hour like Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko and Deborah Voigt.
"Singing is difficult," Ms. Scotto says during a lunch break. "If it's only approximate, it's better not to do it at all. I want the singers to have the best coaching. I wouldn't do it with less. When I'm surrounded by the best, I'm happy."
Opera stars in retirement are forever weighing the present and finding it wanting; it's human nature. Preferring action to complaint, the petite Ms. Scotto has emerged as one of the world's foremost teachers of vocal style and technique, sought after from Paris to Tokyo by way of the Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps and Helsinki.
The Scotto academy in Westchester was born of a chance encounter at a Met luncheon a few years ago, when Ms. Scotto met Robert G. Heath, chairman of the conservatory's board. Learning of a similar program she leads in her native Italy, Mr. Heath invited her to replicate it in his community.
The White Plains edition is now in its third season. On Saturday, the 14 participants will appear there in recital. If the past is any guide, talent scouts will attend. Ms. Scotto is determined that her charges shine. She has their careers in mind.
While still in her teens, in her hometown, Ms. Scotto made her operatic debut as Verdi's consumptive courtesan, Violetta, in "La Traviata," one of the supreme challenges in the Italian repertory. "I was lucky to study with the best coaches," she says, "Antonio Tonini, Luigi Ricci. Coaches who worked with Arturo Toscanini, with Tullio Serafin, conductors who taught coaches how to coach. That doesn't exist anymore."
With masters like these, she had hours, weeks and months to examine and absorb every nuance of the words, the drama and the music. Expertise like theirs is not extinct today, but the time pressures of 21st-century training and careers demand instant results. Singers learn to cut corners, at a cost. If Ms. Scotto's three-week retreat cannot make up all the losses, it opens young artists' eyes to what they have been missing.
For the academy, Ms. Scotto considers applicants who are still in school as well as artists already before the public. This year she has two young, off-the-radar Russian sopranos she deems ripe for international careers.
She has two singers already well established in their native Japan: a soprano who wants to polish new repertory, and a tenor who wants to sort out fine points of technique. Apart from a voice and a technique that show professional potential, Ms. Scotto's main prerequisite is dedication to in-depth study.
Flashback to an afternoon in April, when Ms. Scotto visited here for one of four rounds of auditions. Turned out in the sort of chic pants suit she favors, silver-blond hair tied back in the usual short ponytail, she heard a dozen young singers. Her demeanor was one of professional, diagnostic detachment. Not once did she wince when shouted at, or when pitch strayed (as it often did). Only when a clueless lad swung into some bravura Donizetti in English did she show a flash of annoyance.
She had firm words for the 17-year-old who arrived with her parents and offered to sing "Un bel dì," that cry from the heart of Madama Butterfly, another of Ms. Scotto's specialties: "Not even in the shower!" (Puccini can shred a young voice.) The beginner took her medicine gratefully, posed for a snapshot with Ms. Scotto, collected an autograph and went away happy. She was not one of the two singers who made the cut that day.
Fast forward to the present. Ms. Scotto has been working with the tall, striking Irish soprano Elizabeth Woods, whose previous training had been with private teachers rather than at a conservatory. Her dark timbre has a fascinating, tragic allure; as Donizetti's Anne Boleyn awaiting execution in "Anna Bolena," she immediately rivets the attention. Yet Ms. Scotto senses far deeper possibilities.
In a master class with the visiting John Fisher, director of music administration at the Met, the work Ms. Scotto has begun continues. One charged phrase at the beginning of Anne's scene flies up to an electric high C, then cascades down in a scale. Under Mr. Fisher's animated guidance, Ms. Woods learns to land it not as a spike and an afterthought, but as a single, searing lightning bolt. "This is exactly the kind of thing I did with Tonini at La Scala," Ms. Scotto whispers in the front row. Midway through the first full week, Ms. Woods says: "The first thing I've learned is to sing out, to use the whole voice God gave you. Get the voice out first. Then work on the detail, the color, the dynamic."
Not many students get through a 45-minute session without technical corrections having to do with note values, exact pitches and rests; with supporting the breath from the diaphragm; and with placing vowels high (illustrated by pointing a finger to the alveolar ridge, right behind the top front teeth). Ms. Scotto frowns on sliding, scooping, squeezing. Dry as all this may seem, it is on such minutiae that a genuine performance depends. When a student hits the bull's-eye after a succession of close encounters, the difference is between night and day.
But Ms. Scotto's instruction is not all about technicalities. It's about the voice as a vehicle of expression. It's about giving audiences something to get passionate about. "In my generation," she notes, "conductors started cleaning up the musical values, but maybe they have gone too far. Opera has become a bit like a symphonic concert. Too clean. Clean but cold. We need to go back a little bit, to try to communicate some emotion, or the audience gets bored." In her glory years, Ms. Scotto epitomized that ideal, putting scrupulous musicianship at the service of pathos and intensity.
Cristina Nassif, a recent graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, who is to make her debut as Violetta with the Virginia Opera in September, is aiming for the same goal. "What we're doing here makes such a difference," she says after a coaching session. "Miss Scotto doesn't say, 'Listen to my recording.' She encourages us to push ourselves. She teaches words, inflections, the way you throw in a crescendo or diminuendo. It's all there in the score. If you're faithful to that, you can focus on painting a picture, saying what Verdi and the librettist want you to say."
During Mr. Fisher's master classes, Ms. Scotto watches, her face reflecting concentration and grave approval. The soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya learns to impart new spontaneity and point to Violetta's dreamy flights of vocalise.
The baritone Daniel Lee discovers the cause of his vocal fatigue: he is breaking his phrases too often. And the sparkling soprano Liudmila Shikova gets help with the tongue-twisting German of Zerbinetta's rapid-fire patter in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos."
Though seldom heard from, Ms. Scotto is paying close attention, making mental notes for follow-up. "Capisci?," Mr. Fisher asks a Japanese soprano whose Italian is stronger than her English: "You understand?" "Sì," comes the murmured answer, without conviction. Here Ms. Scotto does pipe up, "Non dire sì se non capisci" ("Don't say yes if you don't"). She knows how this gambit goes, and when sessions start running over, she taps her watch. With Ms. Scotto, the trains run on time.
Or they would, if all her students met her standard of punctuality. Still, a moment to relax between lessons has its advantages. "The beauty of studying an opera is to analyze," she says to the room, conversational yet starry-eyed. "To analyze everything!" Her mind lingers on the passage from "La Traviata" that one of her Violettas has just been working on. Under duress, Violetta is breaking up with her lover, Alfredo.
Writing a goodbye note, she weeps, her heartbreak captured in a solo line for the clarinet. "The clarinet!" Ms. Scotto marvels. "It's so deep in your soul. It gives you so much. The composers of the great operas - they are men of genius. You must listen to everything. You must ask, 'Why do I say this?' 'Why do I say that?' 'What is the orchestra saying?'" Her face breaks out in a smile that could light up the Met. "I wish I could go back to my career just to study again," she says. "This is the joy you give me, you singers - to study again."
Thanks to Matthew Gurewitsch and The New York Times.
© 2006 Liudmila Shikhova