Study days

Rachel Nicholls’ Wagner Masterclass – May 19th 2018 – report

19th May 2018, Anthony Burgess Centre, Manchester

Rachel’s experience as Head of Voice at Huddersfield University guaranteed the audience a superbly-prepared presentation throughout. Rachel explained the more technical aspects of singing with the best audio-visual aid of all: her own voice. Few will ever have experienced the thrill of hearing this instrument in action in so intimate a space. Thus equipped with the necessary “basics” we were led through Rachel’s own journey of development to where she stands today as one of the great new-generation Wagner sopranos.

With our understanding of her craft building minute by minute we were invited to use our newly-educated ears to appreciate the different approaches of no fewer than 25 singers from the recorded examples which Rachel had prepared. We gained confidence in discerning how, among six versions of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung the magic of Anne Evans’ delivery differed from those of the other great Brünnhildes of our times such as Birgit Nilsson and Gwyneth Jones.

We compared five tenors’ delivery of Walther’s Prize Song from Die Meistersinger under the guidance of Rachel’s expert commentary, and we heard a remarkable compilation of 11 bass baritones singing Wotan’s last words from Die Walküre: “Wer meines Speeres…” which you can enjoy on YouTube as “The Wotan Sing-Off”. Primed as to what we were to listen for, this took us from the 1940 recording with Friedrich Schorr right up to René Pape and Albert Dohmen in 1988 by way of eight other performances including that of the magnificent (and by now it was clear to us all as to why) John Tomlinson.

For the masterclass Rachel took to the piano to coach mezzo soprano Charlotte Collier through three of the Wesendonck Lieder. Being new to the Wagner repertoire and even to the German language, Charlotte had much to take in, but she is clearly a responsive student. Rachel’s good-humoured and confidence-building approach was reminiscent of that of her own mentor, Dame Anne Evans, with the result that they did not need to go over any points more than once. It was a joy to witness what can be achieved with such encouragement in so short a time. As she embarks upon her own career journey, Charlotte Collier’s development will continue to owe much to the expertise with which Rachel Nicholls goes about her vocation as a teacher of the next generation of dramatic singers.

This article will appear in the September issue of Harmony (no.262, Autumn 2018).

Roger Lee

Image: Charlotte Collier, Rachel Nicholls and Robin Hobbes at the Wagner Society Manchester Master Class, May 2018