Inside Opera Studio
Photo: Rosalie Overing

A day inside of Dutch National Opera Studio

19 January 2022

The young opera talents that are part of Dutch National Opera Studio season 2021/2022 come from all over the world - from Russia to Israel and from South Korea to the United States – but they all have the same goal: a career in opera. Under the professional guidance of the renowned soprano Rosemary Joshua, six singers and one répétiteur commit themselves fully to the two-year training programme that gives them the chance to develop into, as Rosemary puts it, ‘the best version of themselves’. But what does a day in the life of an Opera Studio member look like? A peek into the world of Dutch National Opera Studio.

Text: Rosalie Overing

“I like to keep them on their toes,” Rosemary confides to me as we speed down the stairs towards the studios in the basement of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. It is 11 o'clock Thursday morning, six days before the Lunch Concert that second-year member Maksym Nazarenko and first-year members Claire Antoine and ChanHee Cho will give in the Concertgebouw. To prepare for this concert, the three singers, under the piano guidance of répétiteur Adam Rogala, will follow a workshop with Rosemary herself and Klaas-Jan de Groot, assistant leader of the Chorus of Dutch National Opera. For the other studio members - Ian Castro, Inna Demenkova and Maya Gour - no sessions are planned that day; at that moment they are in the middle of the rehearsal process for La traviata, in which they sing small roles on the big stage.

Rosemary proves that she indeed likes to keep her young artists ‘on their toes’ when she announces that the workshop of that morning will start with singing through the entire repertoire of the Lunch Concert. “Let's make it a performance”, she calls out enthusiastically. This enthusiasm is less present with Maksym, Claire and ChanHee, who, like students who unexpectedly have to make an exam, exchange worried looks. Moments later, Adam hits the first notes on the piano. Arias from operas by Mozart, Rossini, Weber, and Puccini alternate. Rosemary and Klaas-Jan let the singers carry on without interruption, but a furtive glance to my left tells me that they have plenty to say about it: both are frantically making notes, while Klaas-Jan makes small, seemingly unconscious conducting gestures. “Klaas-Jan is an eternal student,” Rosemary tells me later. “He is the same age as most studio members and is always teaching himself new things. That is why I like having him around. He is a real inspiration to the singers.”

ChanHee is still wiping the sweat from his forehead after his last aria, when Rosemary orders everyone in the room to put their chairs in a circle. What follows is an extensive round of feedback. “You are professionals,” the artistic director repeats several times. “And you must always make sure that you radiate this, with the energy and, more especially, the fun that goes with it. Don't forget how much fun it is to sing!” “There is so much beauty in the music and you want to convey this to the audience,” Klaas-Jan adds. “Make sure you really feel all this beauty. Just like, from the moment you stand up and walk to the piano, you have to feel the character you are singing.” When we move our chairs back to the side of the studio after this evaluation and continue the programme, you can immediately feel a great change in energy. Rosemary: “The studio members are all very talented singers, but sometimes they need a pep talk to regain their focus. I see that as one of my most important tasks: to guide them in the mental aspect of the opera profession.”

In the two hours that follow, Maksym, Claire and ChanHee are coached one by one on specific arias from the concert programme. For example, ChanHee works on the dynamics in his aria and is praised for his empathy and performance, while Maksym focuses on the latter during his session. “Find the devil in Maksym,” Rosemary advises the Ukrainian baritone, who throws himself into an aria of Don Giovanni from the opera of the same name. To find the right energy and breathing for this aria, Rosemary draws from her wide range of alternative exercises: from jumping jacks to wake up the body and get the energy flowing to singing in a sitting position with the chest against the chair rail to stimulate a different way of breathing. “It is great to work with Rosemary and I trust her completely,” Maksym says. “She is a professional herself, of course, but also very honest, so if she says something is good, then it truly is good.”

The last to receive personal coaching is the French soprano Claire Antoine. “Find your personal relationship with the notes,” Rosemary advises her. “For it is a privilege to be able to sing that which poets and musicians have worked on for so long.” But also technical terms such as ‘head resonance’, ‘lifting the palate’ and ‘it goes right into the nose’ fly by the ears during this session. It is inspiring to see how the instructions bring about immediate improvements in the performance of the aria. The result is a heartfelt “Beautiful” from Rosemary, an observation that Maksym proudly nods at from his seat at the side of the studio. “It's nice that our group is so close and there is no competition between us at all,” Claire says. “We all know better than anyone what the other person is going through, because we experience this ourselves. The group is also an important foundation for all of us: we are all far from our home countries and our families and friends and therefore find a lot of support in each other. That makes us even closer.”

During the sessions with the singers, Adam also receives the guidance that enables him, as a répétiteur, to guide the singers as best he can. “Your right hand plays just a little bit louder than your left hand and your left hand just a little bit faster than your right,” are the comments. “And generally try to play the music in a softer way.” On Klaas-Jan's instructions, Adam makes changes in his playing that are almost inaudible to the musically untrained ear, but audibly benefit the whole.

Adam also fulfils the role of répétiteur during the rehearsals for La traviata, which take place later that afternoon and for which he has to leave the workshop session early - where, incidentally, Klaas-Jan effortlessly takes his place. This makes Adam the living proof of the two pillars Dutch National Opera Studio rests on: personal coaching and professional experience. Adam: “The work during the workshop sessions in the studio and rehearsals for a 'real' production differ like day and night. In the Opera Studio, the focus is entirely on our personal development and technique, whereas during rehearsals for an opera you work with an entire team on one final product.” Ian Castro and Maya Gour, who at that moment have completed a week and a half of La traviata rehearsals and whom I speak to at the end of the day, can confirm this. Ian: “Participating in a production like this is the final goal that the coaching sessions in the Studio prepare us for: creating a character with which you can tell the audience a story.” During rehearsals for La traviata, the Studio members are not treated differently from the established opera stars with whom they work. Maya: “It is very nice that they treat us as equals. Besides that, it is a great learning experience in itself to work with such wonderful singers.”

The members of Dutch National Opera Studio thus have, as Adam aptly describes, “one foot still in their training and the other one already in the middle of their professional career.” It is not without reason that Rosemary emphasised several times during that day's workshop that the young artists are now professionals. “That still scares me sometimes,” Ian admits with a laugh. “But at the same time, I am glad that she mentions it. When I first came here, I still saw myself as a student, while we are indeed professionals now. But professionals in a setting in which we are given the room to experiment, people are happy to guide us and it is acknowledged that we are still developing.”