Bootcamp: From classical to modern music

An international enoa masterclass with Topi Lehtipuu for singers and pianists.

Opera singing student Isaac Tolley about discovering bridges between Mozart and modern music while being mentored by one of Finland’s most renowned opera singers Topi Lehtipuu and the encounter with young opera talents from all over Europe during one exiting week of international masterclass.

The visit of Topi Lehtipuu to the Theaterakademie August Everding in collaboration with the European Network of Opera Academies (enoa) was a workshop my fellow students and I had been looking forward to hugely. Famous for his definitive performances as Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Lehtipuu now brings his commanding stage presence and complete tenor voice to everything from Monteverdi to new operas, alongside teaching, cultural entrepreneurship, producing multi-disciplinary projects, and consultancy work, enjoying a diverse career in every sense of the word.

Discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion in opera were central to our group work from the start of the event, as aspiring young opera singers articulated their experiences, cultural backgrounds and hopes for our profession. In a time where borders seem to be drawn ever more and more thickly within our societies and between nations, promoting contact between nations and cultures is a key responsibility of our profession. While producing and refining our art, the cultural and national variety within our student group was a key strength, with collaborators from Britain, Finland, Portugal, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Bosnia, Montenegro and Austria each bringing their own thread to form a rich tapestry of music and cultural exchange, all contributing to engaging discussions of the future of our art form internationally. 

Coming from Scotland, the question of European identity is always present to me feeling deeply European but denied proof of that identity by recent events. Seeing that in uncertain times our differences presented themselves exclusively as strengths was both heart-warming and showed the central role that our international community of young, passionate performers can play in transcending both imagined and real borders.

The master course consisted of group work, where we gained concrete tools to tackle contemporary music, and solo lessons, with all participants working on one contemporary piece and one Mozart aria, alongside some challenging choral repertoire. Topi’s deep compassion, experience and versatility shone through every moment of teaching. 

For my part, I brought a monologue by the wonderful American composer Libby Larsen, from her work Frankenstein (1990), an opera adaptation of Mary Shelly’s feminist masterpiece. In my experience so far it is depressingly rare to sing a work that is entirely female in its conception, and Larsen’s setting of the work is masterful, but a considerable challenge to present convincingly in a recital setting. Topi’s guidance focussed on the dramatic aspect of the performance, presenting a character that was clear and convincing without resorting to over-acting and vocal dominance. Bringing a character to life under the guidance of decades of experience was a true privilege and helped me achieve a simplicity and boldness in my performance that I had not experienced before.

Many attendees of the course reported that the combination of modern music and Mozart was a beneficial symbiotic relationship, with the drama and freshness of the new works feeding into the interpretation of arias that have been sung for centuries, and the brilliance of Mozart serving as a constant reminder of what an art form can achieve. The final concert, which took place in the Gartensaal of the Prinzregentheater on the 29th of January 2022, was a compelling demonstration of what heights can be achieved when international collaboration, open minds, top young vocal talents, and a world class instructor are brought together in one fantastic week by a network like enoa.

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