The cast of Pius XI High School’s “Phantom of the Opera” have a daunting task. The singers must convincingly mimic the vocal capacities of a Parisian opera company as they perform the Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
But on March 12, they got a bit of professional help: a workshop with world-renowned opera mezzo-soprano Marjorie Melnick.
“She blocked out an hour of her time completely free of charge,” said Bonnie Sholz, chair of the Performing Arts Department at Pius. “She loved the kids and they loved her right back.”
Melnick was in Milwaukee to perform a concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The visit was set up by her fellow performer and former Julliard classmate, cellist Ravenna Helson, who has coached and accompanied the choirs of Pius XI.
“We called Ravenna to do the class originally, because she’s just a great coach, and the dates didn’t work out,” said Scholz. “So she said, ‘My classmate is in town for a week and she loves to do master classes while she’s traveling – would you be interested?’”
Pius XI High School will stage
Melnick, a native of Massachusetts, has had an impressive career on the European opera scene. She has a master’s degree in music from Julliard and made her operatic debut in 1985 as a member of the Zürich Opera. She is currently a senior lecturer in voice at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
For the students, Melnick performed a song from her current concert and then took questions, which the kids had “a million of,” said Scholz. “She talked about how the diction coaches at her school approached things, how the opera coaches in Europe approach things. They talked about auditions, everything. It was wonderful – she was supposed to spend an hour with them but she spent well over that time.”
Melnick, for her part, was happy to see young performers in action.
“It’s always interesting to see these young singers before they get to the university level,” she said. “I was just delighted to see that kind of vibrant, exciting program going on in Milwaukee. I would love to see it in a lot of other places.”
The high schoolers performing “Phantom,” which will premier April 19, not only have limited precedence upon which to base their interpretation, as the rights only recently became available to high schools in the United States, but the vocal demands of the score are extraordinary. Included in the musical are “The Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You,” and “Think of Me” – originally performed by Sarah Brightman, who became famous for being able to reach the impossibly-high E6 note in “The Phantom of the Opera’s” title track.
“Our leads have huge responsibilities in playing opera singers,” said Scholz. “The roles of Carlotta and Piangi represent the resident soprano and tenor of a real opera company, and even our kids who are trying to be real opera choruses have a huge job.”
Melnick gave the kids direction on breath control, diction and how to reach high notes.
“This is a huge piece to take on from so many perspectives,” she said. “It’s a huge work vocally and extremely challenging for any young student. They sang for me a couple of the big chorals, and I was just so impressed. They really are amazing.”
She said she observed in the Pius students a sense of self-assuredness rare in performers their age.
“There was a willingness to take chances and to try new things and do everything that I asked of them. I was really just surprised at how completely open and unabashed and unembarrassed they were in front of one another. It was really exciting to see,” she said.
For Melnick, a performing arts program of Pius’ caliber is an envious thing.
“I wish I could say that I had had that advantage growing up,” she said.
The daughter of two musicians, she had to look outside her school to develop her artistic inclinations. Her father, an opera coach, took her to the Chicago Music Festival where she would sing in the children’s choruses. During high school she was a cellist and her high school was “unsupportive. One year they didn’t let me go to the all-state orchestra because they wanted me to stay here in the chorus, which consisted of only about 10 people.”
She noted that the current high school program in Amherst is “significantly better.”
Nevertheless, Melnick believes that what Pius has to offer is something “very, very special.”
“I met one young woman who is singing one of the solo parts and she’s going on in pre-med. I can’t help but think that the good music background she’s had has helped her grow intellectually. The statistics show causality in this,” she said.
Melnick cited the extreme mental demands of musical performance.
“If you’re going to stand up in a chorus, read your music, be able to perform well, listen to all the people around you, make sure you’re fitting into the interpretive endeavor, matching your tone color to theirs, matching your pitch, doing the rhythms, and following the conductor – it’s an enormous amount for the brain to process at one time,” she said. “That kind of education – you can’t put a money value on it.”
For the cast of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the same can be said of Melnick’s coaching.
“She was absolutely priceless,” said Scholz. “We still use the warm-ups and pointers she’s given us. She was an invaluable resource and one that is continuing to pay off weeks after she came.”