NU Declassified: A day at the opera

Ari Bernick, Assistant Audio Editor



Vocal performance majors and professors at Northwestern share details about their daily routine in the Bienen School of Music, as well as the evolving culture surrounding opera music. While this program is extremely time-intensive, there are lots of resources to assist students along the way.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: That’s V Steinbaum, a sophomore in Bienen and Weinberg studying political science, vocal performance and opera. He’s rehearsing the piece, Questo amor, vergogna mia in front of his vocal solo class. Goodness, I wish I could sing like that.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ari Bernick. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. I’m interested in learning more about majors I’m not familiar with.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: Ironically, the first thing I learned about opera at Northwestern is what people call an opera major covers much more than opera.

KURT R. HANSEN: It’s vocal performance. So that means that there’s a wide variety of repertoire that is part of vocal performance. Opera is one part of it. There’s song repertoire, there’s concert repertoire, there’s choral repertoire. So it’s not just an opera major.

TERRY BRANCACCIO: Our department is Voice and Opera. And then the major itself is a performance major — vocal performance major.

ARI BERNICK: That was Kurt R. Hansen, coordinator of voice and opera at NU, and Terry Brancaccio, a senior lecturer in voice and opera and vocal pedagogy. Terry said, from a teaching perspective…

TERRY BRANCACCIO: We train them to build the technique and the stamina to be able to perform this really challenging repertoire. It’s different from contemporary music, that kind of thing, their extended techniques, and there’s a lot of skill that has to go into that.

ARI BERNICK: Vocal performance majors are also taught to project their voices when performing.

KURT R. HANSEN: You have to be able to sing in a way to be heard over a large group of instruments. And so it is literally a physical discipline to get your voice trained to that area where you are able to project over instruments without amplification.

TERRY BRANCACCIO: There’s a term that’s in use these days called “vocal athlete.” And it’s a great description because your whole body is involved in the production and your voice, the instrument is you.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: A day in the life as a vocal performance student at Bienen is busy.

V STEINBAUM: I mean, on a day that’s most filled, it’s from like, 10:00 to 5:00 somedays. Today is going to be 9:30, with a long break, but I won’t be done ‘til 6:00 (p.m) today, because of a poli sci discussion. So it’s really — it’s intense.

ARI BERNICK: Alexa Bartschat, a Bienen sophomore, is studying vocal performance and music education. She hopes this will allow her to teach others how to play instruments like guitar, which she is working on learning now. She said her schedule is also really booked.

ALEXA BARTSCHAT: My studio class, we usually meet at like, 7:00 or 8:00. And it goes to like 9:00 or 10:00 at night. And then we do it on the weekends sometimes, too. So, it’s literally all the time.

ARI BERNICK: Alexa and other performance majors have to take a variety of required core music classes like music theory, aural skills and keyboard skills. Ismael Pérez, a Bienen freshman studying vocal performance and political science, said vocal performance students also have to take choir every quarter.

ISMAEL PÉREZ: It’s with the belief that it’s going to make us more well-rounded performers in the opera setting, because oftentimes, if we’re cast in an opera, we’re going to have to sing in the opera choir, which is usually very crucial to the production as a whole. So this kind of prepares us for that.

ARI BERNICK: All of these classes definitely impact how many extracurriculars Bienen students can participate in — especially for double majors like Ismael, who is interested in pursuing entertainment law.

ISMAEL PÉREZ: So unfortunately, because Bienen has so many credits that we have to take in a regular day, plus our other major’s classes, I know for me, and for the majority of other voice students, we really don’t have time for much extracurriculars because we have to be constantly practicing or studying.

ARI BERNICK: And practice is certainly a huge part of this major.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

V STEINBAUM: We do have to practice. And that’s something people totally forget about.

ALEXA BARTSCHAT: For voice majors, you can’t physically practice for like, hours and hours, because you ruin your voice. So you definitely have to find a balance.

ARI BERNICK: And practice for voice majors involves more than just singing the piece.

TERRY BRANCACCIO: They have to have the ability to sing and understand what they’re singing in. German, French, Italian, sometimes Russian, sometimes other languages as well, Spanish.

V STEINBAUM: We also have to be translating the pieces. If you’re singing a song in French, which is what a lot of our songs are, you have to know what every word means.

ALEXA BARTSCHAT: Right now I’m working on a Spanish piece, and I’m not a Spanish speaker. So, I don’t really know. So I have to learn the Spanish and also the dialect that the composer intended it to be.

ARI BERNICK: Fortunately, there are required classes for vocal performance majors called Phonetics and Diction, which focus on pronunciation in all of the different languages. Vocal performance students also have individual coaching sessions.

KURT R. HANSEN: So, every voice major, whether it’s undergraduate or graduate, has one lesson a week with their applied teacher, that would be Terry and me and five of our other colleagues.

ARI BERNICK: There are both voice teachers and vocal coaches. Voice teachers focus on technique and repertoire, while vocal coaches primarily focus on interpretation.

KURT R. HANSEN: They bring a world of experience to our students. We really are so impressed with how well our coaches become, like, part of the team, which is what every singer really wants: a team that really can support them and not be pulling them in different directions.

ARI BERNICK: Coaching, in essence, glues everything together.

TERRY BRANCACCIO: Everything tends to start to gel even more, and the level of performance and polish with language and phrasing and everything. It just really, I think it’s one of the things that distinguishes our program is the level of polish that we graduate our students with. And yeah, we’re pretty proud of that.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: Even though vocal performance is time intensive, there’s a collective system of support at NU.

V STEINBAUM: But in the end, we’re all we all love music and love the instrument. And, you know, I feel like I’d be missing part of it if I didn’t do it anymore.

ARI BERNICK: Prof. Hansen says if he would describe opera at NU in one word it would be:

KURT R. HANSEN: Fabulous.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ISMAEL PÉREZ: At least with my grade, I think we’re all very passionate about what we do. But at the same time, we’re very supportive of each other. And I think Northwestern does a really good job at giving us so many opportunities to thrive.

ARI BERNICK: That being said, there is definitely a persona around the genre of opera.

ISMAEL PÉREZ: It is a very elitist, exclusive and not accessible genre of music. And I think even more than any sort of instrument because it’s a type of thing that either you have it or you don’t, and you need some sort of exposure that will introduce you to the whole opera world, and its languages and different years of training and different years of camp.

ARI BERNICK: These barriers to access impact the diversity that exists in opera.

ISMAEL PÉREZ: It’s not that diverse, and you can kind of see it in Bienen especially with the opera faculty, like, there aren’t any Black professors. There aren’t any professors outside of like, white ethnicities, so it just shows opera is very exclusive, and it’s not necessarily the most welcoming genre of music, to be honest.

ARI BERNICK: I asked the coordinator of the voice program about diversity and inclusion in vocal performance.

KURT R. HANSEN: It’s something that we’re aware of, and we’re working on. I think if you were to look at the, the class of singers before this fall, as opposed to this coming year, or this, the incoming first-year students, I don’t think we had any students that were ethnically diverse, other than there may have been a couple with Latinx backgrounds, but no African American students. Now we do have a few African American students. And I can tell you, as the coordinator of the voice program, that our faculty is really focused on trying to improve that.

ARI BERNICK: Fortunately, opera is evolving.

ISMAEL PÉREZ: I think, with the years that are coming, we’re going from breaking the rules of always doing these traditional boring operas, and they’re adopting different stories of different peoples with different backgrounds, stories about people from southern India and the times of their ancestors. In the last 50, 60 years, they’ve done a lot of new operas about slavery and segregation in the South and operas about pretty much everything. They’re really striving and I feel that they’re striving to make it more accessible to the public and making the stories a lot more relatable to the public, which was always an issue.

[Questo amor, vergogna mia performed by V Steinbaum]

ARI BERNICK: And if you want to listen to an opera yourself, Prof. Brancaccio has recommendations.

TERRY BRANCACCIO: I think La Bohème is just probably one of the most popular operas out there. It’s a love story. And it’s tragic. And it’s got music that you go home singing some of the amazing melodies. It’s very romantic. So that’s a great, I think, a great starter.

[“O Mimi, tu piú non torni” performed by Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti]

ARI BERNICK: I know what I’ll be listening to tonight.

ARI BERNICK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ari Bernick. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

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