Imagine yourself in an auditorium, on stage in front of at least 250 people, and all their eyes and ears are fixed on you. Palms sweating? Check. Heart racing? Double check. Knees quaking? Most definitely. Then the spotlight hits you and you hear your instrumental cue-it’s time for you to begin your song. As if all this pressure were not enough, after singing just a few bars, you’re interrupted by a tenacious voice that’s audible to the entire room, “Try the opening again dear, slower this time, and higher, but don’t take any additional breaths.” That would be Marilyn Horne, and you would be a student in her vocal master class at the Music Academy of the West. Now it’s take two. Good luck!
For the majority of us who feel, as I do, that we are fundamentally musically impaired, this scenario would no doubt be a recipe for disaster, or heart failure, or both. However, to those gifted and talented enough to attend the Music Academy of the West’s summer vocal program, the master class is among those things they have been working towards for years. Not only do these young singers enjoy performing in front of an audience, but they are also comfortable (or comfortable enough) being critiqued by a famous teacher in front of an audience, and having to correct their errors, live on stage.
The Music Academy of the West is a summer program that offers young, talented musicians the opportunity to study under some of the best teachers in the world, including greats such as Marilyn Horne, Warren Jones, and Chuck Hudson. The Academy’s vocal students are selected with a specific opera in mind, and they practice and perform both their roles in the opera and pieces from the vocal repertoire throughout their nine weeks at the academy. Hundreds of vocalists and instrumentalists from around the world compete through auditions to earn a place at what has been dubbed, “the world’s most elite band camp,” and “the Rolls Royce of summer music academies.” And, from my observations as a newcomer to the audience for these artists, the chosen few who make it are almost inconceivably talented.
I come from a family where music is treasured, loved, and enjoyed. My dad is Spanish, and my mom is Colombian, so loving great music is in my genes. From ten in the morning until ten at night, anything from Frank Sinatra to Stan Getz to Beethoven pours out of large speakers and into our Montecito home and yard, much to our neighbor’s dismay. I took the standard piano lessons as a toddler, and kicked and screamed my way out of them by age ten. But apart from avid appreciation, my relationship with music has been limited. I am not a critic or a music expert, but merely a young admirer, here to report on the amazing level of excitement and creativity I witnessed at the Music Academy this summer.
When I was told about the Music Academy of the West, I jumped at the chance to attend my first master class. Taking my seat just as the lights began to dim, I felt prepared for two hours or so of soothing classical music alongside the mostly 65 and older afternoon crowd, and did not expect anything revolutionary or explosive. By the end of the afternoon, I was stunned-and proven wrong. I have news for my fellow teenaged pop music fans: classical music and the word “explosive” can be used in the same sentence without contradiction.
As a sixteen-year-old girl the extent of my ambition right now is doing well enough in school to get into a good college. I still haven’t found my vocation or calling, and I don’t know that I expect to for a while yet. For me to witness these young adults at the Music Academy, many of them not much older than I, performing and learning with total conviction that this is where they want to be, exactly what they should be doing is truly inspiring. Not only are these students absolutely passionate and determined, they express these wonderful qualities whenever they perform a piece-even if they are doing so in voices two octaves higher than a normal person could express anything.
As part of my summer internship at the Independent, I not only got to attend several vocal master classes, I also got a chance to meet and interview one of this year’s top singers. Celia Zambon Wollenberg will sing the role of Philine, the flirtatious actress who serves as a foil to the title character in Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon. She is a graduate student in the doctoral program in music at the University of Oklahoma and is returning for a second summer to the Music Academy. I spoke with her on the campus of the Cate School, where the vocal program students are housed for the summer.
How do you feel about returning to the Music Academy of the West for a second summer?
Very happy. It’s a great program. In fact, Ms. Horne calls it “the champagne of programs.” I loved it last summer, so I auditioned again, and I was very fortunate to be accepted. Getting this great role in the opera was beyond my expectations, and I was just thrilled.
Tell me about your character.
Philine? Well, there are two main female characters in the opera. There is Mignon, the title role, who is a little Bohemian orphan, and then there is Philine, who is a loud coquette, flirtatious and blond, and who loves to have men drool over her. And then there’s the tenor, you know, Wilhelm, the romantic interest, and then there is the bass, who looks like a vagabond but turns out to be the father of Mignon, and they are reunited at the end. I hope I’m not spoiling it for you! So it’s a beautiful story, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.
How do you feel about the master classes?
Well, I’m so lucky because I work with Ms. Horne twice a year. She actually comes to my school-I go to the University of Oklahoma, and I’m a doctorate student there. And I’ve done my undergrad and masters there so I’ve known Ms. Horne for about six years, and I’ve gotten to work with her for about that whole time, and it’s been wonderful, she’s a wonderful person to know. I mean, she’s this legend right? And she really cares for the next generation of artists, and she really hopes that she can pass on the torch, keep it alive. She just really wants to keep singing, and to keep the music alive.
But are you comfortable on stage in front of an audience with a teacher critiquing you?
Master classes are always very uh:well. [Pause.] Honestly, I prefer performing. A master class is actually a performance. For the person singing and the pianist, but also for the teacher, they are all performing for an audience. So it’s not like a private lesson, where it is more intimate, and you are not worried about a third eye looking and taking it in, so there’s that aspect. I know for me, I learn more watching a master class than actually being in one, because when I am in one, I’m performing so I’m not really: [Pause.] Well I’m learning of course, but I get more out of watching or having private lessons. So for me, it’s really more for the sake of others and the audiences that there are the master classes. But they are great, and very intense.
What are your future goals as a musician?
Well, I love singing and I would love to perform. But in this business, I believe there is a big factor of luck and I believe that it’s not, really, in my hands. I mean, some of it is. I have to work hard, you know, and I have to audition, but then I don’t get to decide exactly where I’ll be accepted. I was, however, accepted here. I worked hard to prepare, I auditioned, and I was lucky to be accepted. For the future that’s what I have to do. I’m going to continue pursuing this goal, because I want to keep singing. And I’ll go through the doors that will open up for me.
What’s your typical day like during the Academy?
Today is not typical because it is a day off. On days of we are forbidden to sing, because as singers the voice is our instrument. Even just talking can really fatigue your vocal cords. So we’re supposed to be as quiet as we can, and not sing. But on a typical day when we are on, well, it changes every day:depending on the rehearsal schedule, the lessons, and the coaching. But a typical day here would start at ten with a rehearsal for the opera, and then go to lunch, and then after lunch maybe have a coaching, or a coaching and then a lesson, and then go to rehearsal again. Then maybe I might have an hour in the afternoon to run errands or practice or whatever, and then it is dinner time, and after that, from 7 to 10 is the time we are most busy rehearsing again for the opera. It’s a long day. But sometimes were have the morning off, and I can sleep in. That is always really nice.
When did you first start singing?
I started seriously pursuing and learning with a good teacher when I was twenty-three. I always wanted to sing and I tried pursuing that goal from France, but I wasn’t fortunate enough to find a teacher that I was receptive to. I had to wait until I moved to the States, and I switched teachers, for things to really get going in my career. That is when I met Donna Cox-she’s a teacher at the University of Oklahoma. And I studied with her for about five or six years. She taught me a lot. She’s a wonderful lady. But that’s how I got started being really serious about it-by coming to America and going to school.
Do you identify with your role of Philine in the opera Mignon?
Of course there is that aspect of me that loves being the center for attention. After all, I am an opera singer. So yes, definitely, insofar as my character is very flamboyant, and she loves to be the center of attention, then I can identify. Philine loves it when everybody thinks she’s wonderful. And I think we all do like that, don’t we? We like to feel treasured, and honored. I don’t necessarily empathize with how mean Philine can be. She’s a little manipulative. And I try not to be that way in real life. But it’s good because for me, as an actress, when I prepare a part, I try not to judge my character, or put her in one box with one label on it. Because that would makes her a shallow character, and then what I do wouldn’t be believable on stage. So I always try to have compassion for the characters I play, and be honest about my characters. Yes, there is weakness in Philine, but there are strong points to her too. Actually, I associate Philine with Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. That’s really what I have in mind when I play her, this woman who is so manipulative, but you can’t help but like her and want to be her. You know? Scarlet does some really awful things in the story, but you can’t help it! She’s so charming that you can’t stay mad at her. She’s strong at the beginning of the story, and it’s purely out of vanity that she is mean. But as the story progresses, her strength comes out, and it’s to save her family, that’s why she makes those hard choices. And Scarlet is actually good at being mean! I love that line in Gone with the Wind when Scarlet says, “I can’t worry about this today, I’ll worry about it tomorrow.” It’s so determined and so strong.
What are your favorite things about the Academy?
Well, lot’s of good times. I love studying with everybody here; the faculty is amazing, and I enjoy learning from all of them. I also enjoy very much collaborating with my colleagues. Not only the singers, but also the pianists and everybody, everybody is so good. We’re so spoiled you know, because everybody who was picked is so good. We’re the best in our school, so all of us getting together is just great. We get to make great music together. I also really appreciate the compeer program. It was set up a few years ago, because it can get pretty lonely up here. You know you go back to your room at night, and I’m married, so I miss my husband. And you’re like, ‘well:what am I going to do now?” But I’m here for nine weeks, and it’s worth it, so I do it. The compeers are very generous people, and a lot of them are donors of the academy, so they also give money to the program. And they want to get involved in the lives of the fellows. So the Academy staff matches us up. They ask us question about our hobbies, what we like to do, and what we like to eat, so they can match us up with suitable compeers, and then we can hang out with them. The compeers take us out to eat, and into their homes, and it’s wonderful. I was assigned to John and Georgia Lynn, last year, and I became such good friends with them that I had to have them again this year. Even when I came to audition again for the academy in November of last year, I stayed with the Lynns. You develop a strong relationship with them, and you keep up with them all year, sending emails and things. You know when there were the fires, I was like “What’s going on? I hope your house is okay!” We’ve become really good friends. They’re interested in music, they go to all the master classes, and they’re very encouraging.
How do you prepare for a role the day before or the day of the performance? Are there things you do to cope with nerves and save your voice?
That’s a very good question. I’ve had to go through several bad experiences to figure out what works for me. The day before a performance, I try to be as quiet as I can. I rest my voice, I try not to talk very much at all, and I try to get a lot of sleep. But sometimes you’re so nervous about it, and you’re anxious, so you stay up. The night before isn’t too great for sleep, so I try to get really good sleep the night before the night before. I go through my score mentally, and I review my blocking. I review my intentions with my character:you know, what am I going to do here, or what’s my obstacle. I also review musically difficult spots, and things that I have to watch out for. And I just try to have everything in my head, because it’s so mental. I have to trust that when I get to the performance:it is like I am on autopilot pretty much, but you do get to make choices, and that is when your preparation shows. What I get to improvise on at a performance, that is what I really enjoy, because there is an audience. You can play something up a bit more or a bit less, you can gauge differently with the music and with acting, and then see how the audience responds. And it’s like communication. It’s really exciting, I love that.