Virtual faculty-student showcases here to stay at Aspen Music Fest

They’re not the marquee events in a normal Aspen Music Festival season, but some of the most unforgettable moments here are normally those that offer a public peek at the student-teacher relationships that are the heart of the festival.

You’ll find them on a weekday morning in composition recitals at Harris Hall or in the opera scenes master classes at the Wheeler. They never draw the biggest crowds of the summer, but those who’ve experienced them know these are meaty cultural experiences.

The virtual season during the coronavirus pandemic has put these types of events on a global online stage, with a varied lineup of faculty-student showcases.

Last week, William Guanbo Su, an Aspen opera student from Houston, performed an aria from Handel’s “Orlando” via Zoom for the luminaries Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers — all of them at home due to public health restrictions. This would have been Su’s second year at Aspen with a principal role at the Wheeler. Instead, the bass was performing from home in a T-shirt and sport coat.

Fleming’s and Summers’ notes offered some useful feedback for Su, of course, but also a fascinating window into their thinking as artists. Fleming offered technical advice — perhaps to sing without so much space in the back of the throat — and encouraged Su to find a brighter, more varied colors in the piece (“It sounds like you are unleashing the furies.”) She and Summers also encouraged Su to try again while improvising some of this ornamentation of the aria.

“I encourage you all to improvise as much as you can with this repertoire,” Fleming said. “It’s going to make you much more interesting in it.”

Added Summers: “You’ve got to be bold with those things. Don’t worry so much about being right.”

If there is a lasting effect of this virtual 2020 season on the Aspen Music Festival in the years to come, it is likely to be in these behind-the-scenes showcases for the web. Alan Fletcher, the festival’s president and CEO, says they are here to stay.

“We are learning about producing really meaningful content that can reach people all over the world,” Fletcher said last month. “We will continue with that.”

Among the highlights of these midweek extras was the Aug. 12 showcase with Fleming, soprano Julia Bullock and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. The nominal topic was “how to forge a career today” in opera, but in practice this turned into a fascinating conversation about the why of it. The conversation prompted Bullock, for instance, to delve into how she re-evaluates why she sings every six months or so, and how she has most recently found herself focusing on making room for other people and new voices on stage.

The program also included some behind-the-scenes talk about the popular “Das Rheingold” parody McKinny and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made remotely in quarantine and released on social media and a call for artists to break out of the staid traditions of the form.

“Especially you singers out making digital content, give yourself the freedom to do what you want and the freedom to fail,” McKinny said.

In July, the varied showcases included artist-faculty violinist Robert Lipsett hosting seven of his students for virtual performances in a Strings Student Showcase, piano artist-faculty Yoheved Kaplinsky doing the same with three of her students and trumpet teacher Stuart Stephenson allowing viewers to eavesdrop as he gave a private virtual lesson to two students.

The conversation-style showcase programs often focused on music careers and trends, while the Monday “High Notes” discussions often turned a fascinating eye on what musicians are doing during the stay-home periods of the pandemic. An Aug. 10 video chat between Fletcher and Summers also offered a glimpse of the future of opera in Aspen.

Summers, as co-artistic director with Fleming, had been set to debut of the new Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program this season.

“Renée and I planned enough pedaogy for about five years,” Summers said.

They were focused largely on the three opera productions that had been planned for the season: Mozart’s The Magic Flute,” Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and a semi-staged “The Mother of Us All.”

Those productions would have gotten most of the attention from audiences this summer. But the less public part of the program, the personal coaching and training of it, is its heart and will be next season, Summers said.

“We are focusing the early years of our program on coaching and preparing singers for what will be very different careers from when Renée and I were starting,” he said.

Looking at a cultural sector that is likely to shrink in the post-pandemic world, also dimming opportunities for talented young singers, Summers and Fleming want to prepare their students for that reality.

“Post-coronavirus, it will be even more important to have singers who are prepared for all kinds of careers,” Summers said. “Not all opera careers are center-stage at the Vienna State Opera. We have been very focused on the breadth of that what a career in opera can be.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the “Das Rheingold” parody was made with Ryan McKinny and Jamie Barton.