11/26/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

The Voice and Beyond: A Master Class With Bernarda Fink

Hailed as a "master of the disarming" with "deceptive simplicity" by the New York Times, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink honored Florida Grand Opera (FGO) by conducting a master class for its Young Artist Studio on November 20, 2012.

Fink has performed in the most famous opera houses from Geneva to Buenos Aires, singing with leading orchestras, such as the Gewandhaus Leipzig and the Orchestre National de France, to name a few. Maestro Ramon Tebar, FGO's music director and conductor of season opener La bohéme, moved fast to make this particular master class happen when he heard Fink would be in Miami performing with the Cleveland Orchestra. "It is actually the first time she sang in the United States," said Tebar. "And I just said to myself, 'we have to bring her here.'"

Much like a typical voice lesson, master classes address issues relating to voice and performance technique, but have the unique benefit of giving upcoming artists access to internationally known singers, such as Fink, and their expertise. "Master classes aren't just about music, but about everything -- repertoire, tradition, career, life choices, and more," said Tebar.

The first-hand experience and guidance are among the things that young singers look forward to the most when attending a master class. "These teachers can share with us what they have been through with conductors and directors... [and] they can give a lot more practical advice for the working singer," said Matthew Newlin, first-year member of FGO's Young Artist Studio.

Fink did just that, giving pointers that extended beyond technique to elevate the artists' overall performance. She began by addressing the topic of breath. To many artists, breathing is a necessary side effect of singing -- something they have to do to produce sound. However, both Fink and Tebar strongly disagree with that mentality. Fink explained how breathing can be something wonderful and expressive when done with the essence of the text in mind.

She also set some concerns to rest about a big voice. "I like the formula 'less is more,'" said Fink. "Sometimes in not having a big voice, we hear a better voice; a voice concentrated on the libretto, with the right pitch, and the right intonation. That is what gets through to an audience."

While it may not always be about a big voice, it is always about the tempo. A stable tempo is the basis of everything. It is vital to keep tempo and conduct yourself. "You have to feel it in your body," said Fink. "You have to feel it here, in your stomach, in your heart, and finally put the tempo together with a feeling." Sometimes artists place too much focus on the voice and the technique. "As soon as we think too much, we are late," she added.

Understanding the text is also a key component of delivering a solid performance. Referring to the libretto as "a singer's roadmap," Fink recommended sitting down and truly reading it, forgetting that it needs to be sung, to delve into the mood of the character. Being actors as well as musicians, opera singers must make this part of the necessary preparation of stepping into a role. Next comes the hard part. "Abandon oneself in the music ... one has to dare," says Fink. Singers must allow themselves to melt into the music. "You are sacrificing yourself in order to give the audience your voice," advised Fink.

Throughout the class, Fink referred to the relationship between the singer and the conductor or accompanist as a dialogue. "It's not the conductor saying, 'Here I am. Just come with me.' The conductor and singer need to follow the music together," she said. It is difficult for a conductor when a singer tries to follow behind instead of walking alongside.

As the master class came to an end, Fink had some final thoughts to share with the artists, such as the importance of experimenting with the voice. All singers have a certain orientation or inclination, but it is very important to widen the range and repertoire as much as possible. Just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, Fink also urged the artists to be thankful. "While traveling, sometimes, I weep because I am away from my family. And then, I think about singers who weep because they don't sing," she said. "Somehow, one has to be happy with that which life has given you."

Bernarda Fink Master Class, Florida Grand Opera