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Opera star returns to Crane to teach seminar

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POTSDAM — When Metropolitan Opera star Stephanie Blythe auditioned participants for this week’s inaugural Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar at the Crane School of Music, she knew exactly what she was looking for.

“The people attending are all young, emerging professionals. Most have been singing and performing for some time,” she said. “We were looking for ability to communicate, high levels of vocal technique and a certain kind of personality.”

Ms. Blythe is known for personality, both on stage and off. A 1992 graduate of Crane, she has been praised by critics for her larger-than-life voice and expressiveness on stage. It is only natural that she returns to her alma mater to pass on her artistry.

The seminar is geared toward up-and-coming singers and accompanists ages 23 to 35 whose voices are just mature enough to fill recital halls and opera houses. Ms. Blythe will help them hone their craft to fill a stage with their presence.

Pianist Alan Smith, also a composer and much-sought-after accompanist, will join her to instruct the seminar. Ms. Blythe and Mr. Smith will teach seven vocalists and three pianists individual, autonomous artistry this week in a series of master classes and performances.

“We wanted people who are really imaginative thinkers,” said Mr. Smith, who emphasized that the seminar intended to develop students’ artistry, not their instrumental or vocal skill.

“Our goal is for musicians to become creatively and imaginatively autonomous,” said Ms. Blythe. “Part of this is learning how to become very in-tune with the audience.”

Ms. Blythe mastered that connection in her opera roles but said she prefers the more intimate, creative character of interpreting music for recitals.

“With a song, you can make choices about what you want to say,” she said. “You can introduce a song in a particular way, or place songs in a certain order. When you do an opera, your character is already chosen.”

In that spirit, seminar participants are not being assigned music by Ms. Blythe and Mr. Smith, but are encouraged to bring selections they want to work with.

“We want to plant seeds,” said Ms. Blythe. “We’ve encouraged all performers to choose their own repertoire. We’ve started out with the idea that the onus is on them.”

Crane was selected for more than its prestige as a music education institution, said Ms. Blythe.

“Was there any other place? The facilities here are excellent,” she said, recalling her fondness for the campus and her connection to several Crane instructors, including Carleen Graham, undergraduate opera director and seminar cocreator.

“When I came here, I was one of the first people she worked with in the undergraduate opera program,” said Ms. Blythe. “She took this program and created a leading opera program. I’ll never be able to repay her for what she’s given me.”

The program begins this morning with a public master class at 10 a.m. in the Sara M. Snell Theater. At 7 p.m., Ms. Blythe and Mr. Smith will perform a recital in the same venue. The recital will feature a suite of Emily Dickinson poems placed to music by composer James Legg and a full slate of modern American composers including Samuel Barber, Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert.

The organizers selected music sung in English, particularly American music, for the seminar.

“Often, the focus on American song is part of a larger buffet,” said Mr. Smith. “There are jewels and wonderful, beautiful pieces that deserve to be brought to life.”

Ms. Blythe said performing music in the native language of an audience provides opportunities for performers.

“It creates a connection, a community,” she said. “There’s an enormous amount of wonderful new American song being written right now. I want this to become a home for contemporary song.”

The seminar continues Wednesday and Thursday with a pair of closed master classes, then a recital of early American song featuring each of the performers at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Wakefield Recital Hall at Crane.

The seminar wraps up at 10 a.m. Friday with a final master class at the Sara M. Snell Theater.

Ms. Blythe has performed major roles at the Met, as well as the Seattle Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in England. She was awarded the Richard Tucker Prize in 1999.

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