Article which appeared in Classical Singer Magazine
Brushing up In Burgundy
L’Académie de la Roche d’Hys
by Katharine Dain
I attended L’Académie de la Roche d’Hys in Burgundy, France, this past August and I had an absolutely terrific experience there. I’ve done some professional work already and I had told myself I was done with pay-to-sings, but I’m so glad I took a chance on this course (via a recommendation from a coach), as it was richly worth the money. The charge was €1,750 for 10 full days, including room and board. (Calling it “board” doesn’t do the food justice, but I’ll get to that later.) Travel to Burgundy was not covered. I was already in Europe, so that cost was small for me, but a transatlantic airfare would certainly add significantly to the cost. In any case, it was perhaps the best-spent money I invested in my singing and development all year.
Jeannette Aster is one of the founders, the general director, and one of the main coaches of the program—and she is among the most generous, knowledgeable, rigorous, fascinating, and kind people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in this business. Each of the working days started with a movement class that she designed and led—a mixture of stretching, yoga, Tai-chi, and strengthening exercises—all geared toward a singer’s body. I am still using many of these exercises in my daily practice; I found that this hour put me into a great physical place for the day’s work.
Each morning and afternoon I would have at least three coachings with the core faculty—Aster, Hans Nieuwenhuis, and Marco Boemi, assisted by conductor/pianists William Shookhoff and Alessandro Bicci. Each coach had something different to offer; Aster and Nieuwenhuis are stage directors and Boemi is a conductor, but what they all had in common was a deep, rooted understanding of the music and how to make a performance more true to yourself and to the composer.
These working sessions were devoted mostly to arias, with the goal of leaving the program with a highly polished set of audition pieces. I wish I’d brought more to work on, actually, as their help was so valuable and detailed and I benefited from it so much! We studied the score in great detail, found dramatic currents, and learned to externalize them; the quality of the work and the attention was exceptionally high. There was much discussion, with each faculty member individually and with all of them together, of what the best repertoire choices were, how to find exactly the right pieces, and how to show the appropriate range musically, dramatically, stylistically. I left feeling very confident about my audition package and I’ve seen definite results since then.
Another advantage was getting to try out what you were learning in actual auditions or mock auditions. Two agents and one casting director (one German, one French, and one British) came for a night each, heard all of us in an audition setting, and then gave detailed and sympathetic feedback—not just on our singing, but on what kinds of opportunities to seek out, how to approach management, what sort of career timeline we should shoot for, and how our auditions came across down to the smallest detail.
These individual sessions were hugely valuable to me and have directly led to some good opportunities this fall. They were all very generous with their knowledge of the business from the agent’s side of the table, and just chatting with each of them outside of working hours was its own education.
Each day was full and tiring, but every evening we were treated to an absolutely sumptuous dinner cooked by Howard Aster, Jeannette’s multitalented husband. The produce was incredibly fresh and abundant, much of it grown in their garden. The bread was locally made in Howard’s favorite village bakery, and the wine was simply some of the best I’ve ever drunk. We ate outside, watching the sun set, almost every night. Dinners were long and late and convivial, and all the buzz and stimulation from the day would fall away. It was an absolutely blissful way to end the day.
We all slept in the same large farmhouse, two or three to a room. At first I was concerned about privacy, but my roommates were so lovely and respectful that we became friends quickly and it never felt crowded. The house is certainly “rustic,” and it’s not to a hotel standard. That didn’t bother me at all, but it might bother some. The setting is gorgeous—the farm sits on a hillside surrounded by rocky outcroppings, little tractor paths, woods, cow fields, and a view of the river valley that is spectacular. It was easy to find space alone when it was needed; you could walk or jog in any direction and not meet anyone.
At the end of the session we did a public concert of the music we had worked on. Normally the promise of just “a concert” wouldn’t sound like such an exciting reward to me, but the timing in this program was just right—at the end of 10 days, I needed a real performance, not an audition, to bring together everything that had changed and grown in my arias. The concert was in a renovated barn on the property with wonderful acoustics and it attracted a huge local audience.
The last thing I loved about it: the program seemed to attract a wonderful kind of singer and faculty member. The level varied from upper-level graduate school to some years of professional experience—but at every level, folks were supportive, generous, and unpretentious and the atmosphere somehow managed to stay free of drama and unhealthy competition for the duration (a first in my experience). The faculty was, without exception, warm, easy to talk to, social, and real.
The program gave me an enormous boost. It allowed 10 days of uninterrupted concentration, serious and detailed work at a very high level, and personal growth. It absolutely delivered on its objective: to help singers early in their careers to represent themselves more professionally and more knowledgably. It gave me working tools that I am still using: how to get closer to a score, how to tease out dramatic meaning from musical notation, how to maintain a consistent and honest character, and how to handle myself physically during an audition.
I would recommend the program highly to any singer who is pretty much ready to work but is just lacking some cohesion and confidence. It certainly gave those to me, and I’m very grateful for my 10 days there.
Soprano Katharine Dain has sung with various American opera companies, orchestras, and choirs and currently lives in the Netherlands where she is a member of the Dutch National Opera Young Artist Program. She holds degrees from Harvard University, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Mannes College of Music. Visit her online at www.katharinedain.com.
- See more at: http://www.classicalsinger.com/magazine/article.php