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The Sellars method: How a master director coaches singers toward greatness

During a recent SongFest public master class, the director Peter Sellars was coaching Mishael Eusebio, a poised tenor who told Sellars to call him Mish and brought confident emotion to Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the old American song “The Boatman’s Dance.”

Sellars asked that the boatman call be a more droning refrain evoking the placid expanse of the Ohio River, and that Mish “get down” for the song’s high-spirited quickstep chorus. “Do you dance?” Sellars asked. The tenor smiled without otherwise answering.

Repeating the number, Eusebio nonchalantly threw in three or four remarkably polished tap dance steps for the chorus, causing song and singer to come spectacularly to life. Sellars yelled, “Yeeeeesss!” into his mike. Eusebio flashed that same sly smile.

Earlier, another tenor, Zhengyi Bai, sang “Total Eclipse” from Handel’s “Samson,” and Sellars suggested the opposite tact. Bai had attempted to be a Samson bewailing blindness in hammy operatic fashion. Sellars had him make it personal. “Sit and sing from inside,” he said, placing Bai on a chair and having him sing down lower and lower. “Sing from that place where you are struggling with the blindness that is inside yourself.” This too proved transformative.

Sellars, of course, is well known for his probing productions of traditional opera that reflect on the concerns of the present, whether in how we process emotions or cope with political issues. He is acknowledged as a force in the creation of  important new work, particularly having inspired the major operas of John Adams and Kaija Saariaho. He is a notable teacher and festival director.

Less attention, however, has been given to Sellars’ role in the creation of several of the most important singers of our time.

Over the last three decades, I’ve watched one singer after another fall under Sellars’ spell. Among those from whom he released the potential for a kind of dramatic depth I doubt the singers knew they had in them have been soprano Dawn Upshaw, countertenor David Daniels and, most recently, America’s baritone-of-the-moment, Eric Owens. All were outstanding singers, but only after being taken under Sellars’ wing did they turn into totally committed artists able to produce theatricality from their every pore.

Now there are two more. Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines were the sensation of the Ojai Music Festival, of which Sellars was this year’s music director this month. At Ojai, Sellars spoke of Bullock as someone who reminded him of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, possibly the most astonishingly dramatic opera singer since Maria Callas.

Hunt Lieberson stands out as having been a Sellars creation from the beginning. He put her in her first opera (and his own breakthrough) production, Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” in 1985, and it so happened that while coaching seven students in the vocal training program at the Colburn School on Sunday, Sellars gave a few hints of how he did it. A SongFest mezzo, Phoebe Haines, chose Sesto’s aria, “L’angue Offeso,” that Hunt Lieberson (then just Lorraine Hunt) sang in the opera. 

Seeking to revenge his slain father, Sesto cannot rest until, like an offended serpent, his venom has been spent in the blood of the offender. In Sellars’ production, which he filmed for video in 1990, Hunt takes a deadly snake to her arm, infecting herself with its poison. With an indelible intensity, she creates the sensation of a crazy-making drug running through the blood stream. 

Coaching Haines, Sellars likened Sesto to an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, hands throbbing on the machine gun, unable to control emotions and killing whatever comes in sight. The revenge is the poison, he told her, and it goes deeper and deeper and turns against itself. “Those melismas” — the runs of notes on a single syllable that Haines had sung gracefully — “are not to flatter the voice. They must be out of control,” Sellars said. “You can’t control your emotional life.”

For Sellars, the stuff of life is the stuff of opera and, hence, the stuff of vocal technique. He expressed gratitude for the beautiful sound Haines and other young singers produced. They all got hugs. But he didn’t much want beautiful sound. He cared more about articulating the important words than the little ones. What mattered in every phrase was dramatic, namely human, motivation.

In a recent production of “Giulio Cesare” from the Salzburg Whitsun Festival starring Cecilia Bartoli just out on video, Sesto is sung by the virtuosic countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, a far more fluent singer than a young student could hope to be or even than Hunt was. But when Jaroussky brandishes a rubber snake, in what seems like a fatuous copy of the Sellars’ production, the serpent flops like a lawn hose. There is no infection. Haines, on the other hand, was already starting to show the power of the poison.

Bullock also first started working with Sellars as a beginning singer. (She appeared at the Ojai Festival five years ago as a student of Upshaw.) Her return to Ojai was in two new Sellars’ productions,  Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone” and “Josephine Baker: A Portrait,” which have just been uploaded to the festival’s YouTube page. She is an exceptional singer not only with a commandingly dark and penetrating sound but a dominating physical stage presence. She moves like a dancer. She has everything a great Sellars singer requires. She also makes the plight of the two women in these works-in-progress — a French activist and African American chanteuse — intensely personal for a young African American today.

But so far the best evidence that Bullock is clearly on the verge of becoming the next Hunt Lieberson is a new video of one of Sellars’ latest opera productions, Henry Purcell’s “The Indian Queen.” Here the soprano, who will appear next month at the Hollywood Bowl in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concert performance of “West Side Story” conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, offers a magnificently realized portrayal of an Indian chieftain’s daughter as a commanding modern woman that is every ounce Sellars-esque.

In the notes to the video, Sellars says, “Purcell makes Schubert look like the Walt Disney Corp. It’s just the saddest!” That sounds like a typically outrageous Sellars statement — you watch Bullock make it true before your eyes and ears.

Tines is newer to the scene. Sellars tapped him for Saariaho’s latest opera, “Only the Sound Remains,”  that was slated for Ojai, but the  project proved too complex. It was dropped at the last minute, leaving Tines with little to do. But watch the YouTube video of him singing Caroline Shaw’s “By & By” with the Calder Quartet on the June 11 early morning concert. He has already succumbed to the spellbinding Sellars’ infection.

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SongFest on Saturday

Master classes: With Jake Heggie 9-11 a.m. With Thomas Hampson 2-4 p.m. Open for public viewing. $20.

Concert: “Two Sides of an American Dream: Whitman/Hughes,” 11:30-1:30 p.m., free.

Concert: “Mendelssohn Lieder: Brother and Sister,” Karen Holvik director, Javier Arrebola and Jennifer Tung piano, 5 p.m., free.

Concert: “The Great American Songbook,” John Musto piano, Amy Burton director, 7:30 p.m., free.

Info: (213) 621-4720, www.songfest.us

mark.swed@latimes.com

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