Gary Thor Wedow feels a “missionary responsibility” to teach the new generation of opera singers.
“I’ve had such great teachers, so it’s my payback. I feel we’re in a firefight right now for culture and the arts and opera.”
-Gary Thor Wedow, Professor, The Juilliard School
Wedow will use his passion for teaching to help Chautauqua Opera Company’s Young Artists learn the style of Baroque and aid them in the first Young Artist Open Mic at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 10, in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor.
Baroque opera originated in 16th-century Florence, but flourished in the early 17th century when composer Claudio Monteverdi brought the art form to the forefront. Baroque was a technique used to reinvent Greek dramas.
Though it often included singing, dancing and acting, the focus of the Greek dramas were on the music and not the story, Wedow said. The shift to Baroque put an emphasis on the text, story and characters.
Learning about the early origins of opera helps the Young Artists understand the later styles, Wedow said. Opera singers are typically first taught works from the 19th and 20th centuries, then they work backward, he said.
“Once you understand that original marriage of text and music, the later styles become very easy and interesting to understand,” Wedow said. “But I think sometimes if you try and go backward, you have so much thick brush to clear before you get to the nut of the situation.”
The storytelling techniques used in contemporary and Baroque opera are similar, and Wedow said he notices singers who are good at the earlier operas are also proficient at the newer ones.
“I tell singers the more different styles they can become proficient in, the more different ways they are going to have of making a living,” Wedow said.
Baroque employs some jazz approaches. The artform has a B-section where the singers are encouraged to improvise. Wedow said it’s like listening to Ella Fitzgerald, who would sing the song once, then there would be a return in the score that would allow her to add in other vocal details.
“In the 18th century, particularly, singers were judged on the way they ornamented, just like a jazz singer today,” Wedow said. “Not just on the beauty of their voice, but because of the ideas they had.”
Audiences in the 17th century were extremely educated about how singers should sound, so they would often give prompt feedback, Wedow said. Audience involvement is something Wedow encourages and hopes Chautauquans partake in.
At last year’s open mic, Wedow found that the artists were willing to step outside their comfort zones because they weren’t in a typical rehearsal setting surrounded by teachers and colleagues.
“People really let go and tried things that they might not have tried in a more controlled surrounding,” Wedow said. “So we had some pretty incredible and amazing results that even surprised the singers. They had tried some things they had never done before.”