Arleen Auger is the kind of soprano who leaves connoisseurs scratching their heads to come up with new superlatives. Now at the peak of an international career, she hardly needs to spend time listening to a group of students sing.
But that's what she is doing today at UC Irvine.
Auger, who grew up in Huntington Beach, is passionately committed to helping aspiring singers. "I do this whenever possible," Auger said in a recent phone interview from New York. "I feel strongly about artists passing on our experience and knowledge . . . if anyone wants it.
"I had a very difficult time when I was young in Southern California--and certainly in Europe--finding artists willing and able to pass on their experience. I know how important it is."
Indeed, Auger recalled that there were days here when "I couldn't get a job."
Fresh out of Cal State Long Beach, the Los Angeles native found that she, like so many other American singers, had to cross the ocean to pursue her career.
"I went to Europe (in 1967) and was singing immediately in the Vienna State Opera," she said. She made her debut in the formidable role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's "Die Zauberflote."
"I had never sung opera before," she said. "I had (only) sung operetta, Strauss' 'Die Fledermaus,' at Cal State Long Beach."
She remained at the State Opera until 1974, then took the risky move of branching out into the world of recitals and concerts.
"I had to learn the hard way and (pick up) everything on my own," she said. "I would have liked to have found a more experienced singer . . . who would have been willing and able to take me under her wing, if only for a few suggestions. I didn't want to take singing lessons. But I did want to learn much more in depth.
"And some experience with others would have saved me a certain amount of trauma, saved me from making a few mistakes along the way and given me a much better base of style and interpretation of music. It would have helped me advance a little more quickly . . . . (But) I never was able to find anyone."
Auger said she had friends who knew the legendary soprano Maria Callas. "But she was blocked off and didn't want to see anyone," Auger said. "It was a terrible shame. She had so much experience and such . . . musical depth to (pass) on, and no one received her vast experience. It's a shame. It's gone.
"So whatever I can give to help and encourage--or words of wisdom, tips about seeing more in the music--is fine."
Auger was originally scheduled to give her master class at UCI 2 years ago, but it had to be postponed because of a conflict in recording dates.
Auger has made dozens of recordings of Bach and Mozart (altogether, she has sung on approximately 120 recordings). She has collaborated with conductors Georg Solti, Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado and Helmuth Rilling, among others, and has sung in opera houses from Vienna to Milan and from Moscow to Los Angeles.
She looks at young singers with sympathy, saying it is "much harder" to make a career these days than when she was starting out. "The business is very hard," she said. "The world is much smaller; there are fewer positions even in Europe than there were 20-25 years ago; and there are many more people studying, and a lot of them are very good, very well-trained. . . ."
There are also, she said, "fewer and fewer provincial places where young people have the opportunity to learn. Everything has to be extremely advanced now. . . . There is no city or town now that wants to admit they are a provincial place. But where are the young artists going to take the first steps?"
The result, Auger said, is that young artists have no leeway to make the mistakes that will help them become better performers.
"There is no place to have a bad performance anymore, no place to try out a new repertoire anymore," she said. "If they have a bad day, or an experience didn't work, or they picked the wrong repertory, it shouldn't mean the end of a reputation . . . .
"They need a chance to learn by their mistakes as well as by their successes. They need to have time, so that their careers are not damaged."
Auger said, however, that she will be cautious about doing anything that would intervene in someone's training in today's master class.
"In a master class it is important to help young people where they are at the moment and where they could be going," she said. "I criticize some colleagues who feel that within 20 or 30 minutes, they can teach a person to change everything they are doing wrong--according to that person. But I don't know where the singer was before he or she went to the present teacher, and how far the person is with this teacher and what their goals are.
"But within 15 to 20 minutes, I can pinpoint some tendencies and help them look at themselves and work with themselves better, to use their time more wisely, evaluate their performance and to become more their own leader and not a copy of someone else. . . . I am not trying to judge and criticize them. I am there to help them."
Soprano Arleen Auger will conduct a vocal master class at 3 p.m. today in the Fine Arts Concert Hall at UC Irvine. Participation in the class is for UCI students only, but the public may attend without charge. Information: (714) 856-5259.