Twenty-first century vox

The masterclasses of Britten-Pears School are so good at training singers of the future in everything from Monteverdi to Messiaen that this year the Aldeburgh Festival has put them on stage.

Seaside Aldeburgh has been warming up nicely to receive, very politely, its annual mid-June influx of arty outsiders. Shopfronts are glistening with wet paint in tasteful colours. One old lady, perhaps overcome with excitement, drove her car right into an antiques shop (hurting no one). In his handsome church, it would not be surprising to see the vicar taking some Mr Muscle to the John Piper stained-glass tribute to Benjamin Britten, the local boy who made this place come good.

Inland a touch, at Snape, among the off-stage noise of the festival's building programme working its way through several million pounds of millennium funding, rising sopranos and mezzos in their twenties and thirties were biting great chunks out of the 20th-century song repertoire at the Britten-Pears School. Anyone can attend masterclasses at the school; it's cheap and easy. For the first time this year, in a brilliant innovation, three such singing sessions will be in the festival programme, so this felt doubly like a rehearsal.

There is nothing like watching singers exploring their anxieties about performing this tough music to blow away your own fears about listening to it. It helped that few of these 12 professional or postgraduate singers (most of whom, like the two teachers, are from the US) knew how to make an ugly noise. They took the music of George Crumb, Cathy Berberian and John Cage and could show any sceptic that there is loveliness there.

Singers are notoriously neurotic, and modern song is not normally regarded as easeful, yet the miracle of attending these classes was that they were workmanlike, fun and moving. The young women surprised themselves by not competing with one another - an experiment in singing like divas but not behaving like prima donnas.

Phyllis Bryn-Julson, whose earlier career pioneered much of this material, has done seven annual stints at this job. She tells the accompanists where Messiaen himself ran out of fingers to play the notes, or where the song can be taken much more slowly than is written on the page. "That may be what the score says, but it's not what we worked out at the time," she says, with the authority of having worked with Boulez, Lutoslawski and Ligeti.

She appeared to combine showmanship with a delight in technicality. A singer said at one point that she wanted to relax a little in a particular passage. "But Messiaen didn't want you to," came back the icy oracle. "You watch that rhythm: you get just as many chills from rhythmic accuracy as you do from timbre."

Her confidence was inspirational, a real issue with material that so often requires a performer to blast off disjointed noises into deathly silence or an apparent chaos of other sounds. Cari Burdett, one of several spectacularly tall, super-model singers on the course, wanted help with an electronic piece. Bryn-Julson remarked: "Go back and study Monteverdi when preparing this stuff: remember the classical repertoire. For every electronic piece, there's a Donizetti song you can use as a security blanket." Kristen Toedtman (a great chanteuse in Weill) repeated another Bryn-Julson message: "You need to keep some Schubert in your Milton Babbitt and put some Messiaen into your Puccini."

This cross-over approach - taking the existential to the mellifluous, and the melodious to the exiguous - is a key to finding the loveliness in modern song (and nicely supposes that the compliment can be repaid by the older music). One begins to see that modern composers keep much more truly - and tunefully - to traditions in song-making than at first appears - and only partially because they often use old texts. To test the truth of this, try playing the Schubert and the Britten CDs by the tenor Ian Bostridge - the better, at least, to overcome the disappointment that this singer's recital of both composers at this year's festival has been fully booked for weeks.

Singers of modern song have to be technically highly proficient. The range and rapidity of changes of tone are awesome. A composer will take a melody and put whole octave jumps into it. The tune is there, but it's as if it's on stilts. And the singers say they have to count beats with great accuracy. Finally, you have to love the words. Mangle them, and Bryn-Julson mangles you.

The mechanics of singing are exciting, and are never better demonstrated than in these stripped-down, interrupted performances (they remind you of a blues guitarist playing unplugged).

Singers go to vocal consultants as well as teachers, and live at constant risk, like athletes. At the Britten-Pears School, Ruth Drucker, a long- time friend of Bryn-Julson, takes care of this side of things. "See," she shows Emily Strode, an English mezzo, placing the singer's hand on her own stomach as she demonstrates a note: "I want it from here." And then, with another student: "Yes, that's better; we need the sound to come from higher up", as she discusses a quality of note to be wrung from the youngster's head. "A little lift in the mouth, a little smile, does the trick."

They are chasing sounds all over the place, unearthing them in bits of the cranium, getting them out better by imagining a wire suspending them from the top of the head. These singers' bones matter as much as their brains.

"We are neurotic because we are our instrument," says Christa Pfeiffer, not that the toll shows in her wonderful composure on stage. Cari Barrett gives the biggest clue as to how emotional things become: she dissolves into tears in one passage during a vocal workout. It appears that the noise she was making had unlocked an animal response. People wail when they're upset; this was just a very composed howling. By the way, Bryn- Julson strongly recommends lovers and childbearing for young singers seeking extra quality of tone.

"You have to be prepared to be vulnerable," says Pfeiffer. "Getting good means being able to bare your soul." It also means, oddly, staying uninvolved: this is performance, after all, and control and technique matter hugely. Bryn-Julson is always ticking the women off for being either "too Broadway", or "not Broadway enough": they have to be able to be austere, flashy, haughty and unhinged by turns - and all on tap.

Bryn-Julson and Drucker appear to work hardest on getting the youngsters to slow down, to make less noise. "Let the audience do your work for you," says Drucker sternly to one woman. "They like to do that best. Let them complete the work." She knows that it's leaving well alone that brings audiences to the edge of their seats. "Give the audience more time," says Bryn-Julson, wryly: "They need to recover between onslaughts."

To one woman daunted by a difficult passage, Bryn-Julson's advice is: "You did yourself in with the negative thoughts. There's always a limit to what the voice will do. But stay tall. Anything negative shows. And go and find a Bellini song that goes to the same place. Find that sound and put it into your voice."

It sounded like remembering to pack the right clothes, or remembering the right tools for a plumber to take on a job. It also sounded easy, which is rather the point.

Aldeburgh Festival, 11-27 June. The BPS Masterclasses with Roger Vignoles are on 15, 16 & 17 June, with a concert by BPS alumni on 18 June. Box office: 01728 453543.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor