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Met Opera’s Yelena Kurdina teaches ‘more sound, more breath, more emotion’ in Crill

Yelena Kurdina, the Metropolitan Opera vocal coach and assistant conductor, coached four PLNU voice students in a master class in Crill Performance Hall Saturday.

Kurdina has partnered with many singers, including Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Almost 100 people filled Crill to listen to her critique student performances.

“She is an internationally known pianist and vocal coach and works with the elite classical singers of the world,” said Craig Johnson, associate professor of music at PLNU, via email. “To have someone of this caliber on our campus says a lot about our program, our students and our commitment to the future of classical singing.”

Kurdina is no stranger to international opera houses, including Opera National de Paris, Houston Grand Opera, Saito Kinen Festival in Japan, Summerscape in the New Frank Gehry Theater at Bard College, Teatro de la Maestranza in Sevilla, Spain, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C.

She came to PLNU because a mutual friend, mezzo-soprano Susanna Poretsky, is a mutual friend of Johnson. The Metropolitan Opera National Council said they would pay the fee for the masters class if winners from the Met Auditions were used in the performances. Five of the seven award winners are current PLNU seniors and PLOT members.

Currently, Kurdina works at the Metropolitan Opera, as a guest coach in LA and does a lot of private coaching.

Hosted by Point Loma Opera Theatre (PLOT) and the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the master class consisted of students performing operatic pieces and then receiving constructive criticism from Kurdina as they sang their pieces multiple times.

“It’s always amazing to hear a vocal coach work with young students and then you hear them go up just a little bit more, learn just a little bit more. I’m not a vocalist but I’m a musician, I was, and I always learn something from these every time, so it was great,” said Ted McLaughlin, the San Diego district co-director for the Metropolitan Opera National Council.

The first performer was Nicholas Newton, a senior 21-year-old voice major at San Diego State University who sang “Ah, per sempre” from the opera, “I Puritani,” by Vincenzo Bellini.

“Breath is part of music and breath is part of expression…It’s also a musical device,” she advised the baritone.

For Kelsey Kammeraad, a soprano and senior managerial organizational communication and music major at PLNU, Kurdina gave praises, saying she was “vocally solid” and “supported sound.” Kammeraad sang “Depuis le jour” from “Louise” by Gustave Charpentier.

“Make a big beautiful arch out of the sound. Use that music because it’s part of you,” Kurdina advised Kammeraad.

Kurdina often asked the singers about the content of their song and how they would sing certain phrases or vowels. She taught them pronunciation and held their hand to show when to change pitch and when to breathe. When coaching Jonathan Lacyo, a tenor and senior music major, she emphasized vocal control, the completeness of the piece and following his instincts. He sang “Kuda, Kuda vï udalilis,” also known as “Lensky’s Aria,” from “Eugene Onegin” by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky.

“That pulse inside your body, the pulse inside the music, if you don’t feel it, it’s approximate,” Kurdina said. “When you do feel it, it’s moving through. You have to expand, open up, then you need to open your mouth.”

For Kiana Bell, a mezzo-soprano and senior music major, Kurdina encouraged her to increase her concentration with the sound and to carry her energy until the end. Bell performed “Non so più cosa son” from “Le nozze de Figaro” or “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“This was an incredible opportunity to have someone who works with the Metropolitan Opera which is one of the biggest, most important opera houses in the world,” Bell said. “Unless I grow up to sing there, that’s the only time I’ll be able to work with someone who works there.”

Bell said Kurdina’s critiques were affirmations of things she needed to work on and a breath of fresh air when looking at the character she plays in her piece.

Laurina Nikkel, a professor of voice at San Diego State, attended the event and worked and coached with Kurdina previously. She attended the event to support her student, Newton.

“It’s wonderful for me to see her after all these years,” Nikkel said. “I think it’s amazing to have somebody of her caliber come here to San Diego and work with these really young students.”

After the performances, the audience asked questions about vocal coaching versus stage directors and acting coaches. She said Americans were more versatile because they were better musically educated than those in Russia, her hometown.

Last October, PLNU hosted the Metropolitan National Council auditions, as it has the past three years. This competition is open to American singers between 20- and 30-years-old. Current students won first place, three encouragement awards and audience choice award. The first place winner, baritone and senior music major, Anthony Whitson-Martini, was auditioning for graduate school in Chicago at the time of the session. The three encouragement winners were Kammeraad, Lacayo and Bell.

“I hope that they have a better understanding of and fascination for their craft,” Johnson said. “As 21-year-olds they are all at the top of their game for their age. They are the best at what they do and have the experience and accolades to prove it. But it is important to see that their level of achievement now, as relatively wonderful as it is, is only the tip of the iceberg. They all have considerable work ahead as singing artists. I think that working with Kurdina helped them to realize this.”

Since 2008, PLNU/PLOT has produced seven 1st place winners, 14 encouragement award winners and two audience choice winners from the Metropolitan National Council Auditions.

” I don’t think that any other institution on the west coast (undergraduate, graduate or conservatory) can make that claim,” Johnson said.

Kudrina’s last piece of advice?

“Enjoy ourselves then everyone will get out if it what they will,” she said.