None of us have ever been in doubt about the great young British Wagnerian soprano, Rachel Nicholls’ ability to sing. From Bergen to Longborough to Tokyo she has rocked the halls with thrilling sound – rich, silvered, skin-prickling. Some of us knew that she also loves to teach. Here at Bergen National Opera we had taken that on board in principal – but confronted for the first time by the reality, we were (there is no other word) awestruck.
This summer, our Unge Stemmer, young artists from the Hordaland region who have left to study overseas and are mentored by BNO throughout their degrees’ duration, came with a couple of Edvard Grieg Kor’s younger voices to be runners, performers and general assistants at our Mimi goes Glamping Festival at Åmot Operagard. Their reward was a class with Rachel, who with her bass-baritone husband Andrew, was artist-in-residence. The young singers assembled in Åmot’s charming barn, jittery, smiley and variously clutching scores, strong coffee and sheets of music.
They began – each had a 20 minute slot – and we sat in the audience listening to phrases stretch from strained to serene, breathing slow, sounds beautify, barking bass notes change to bronze and nerves vanish. Marvellous, everyone said, watching the young faces grow thoughtful, and notebooks fill with essential exercises and advice. ”Do not” said Rachel, observing ”change anything because of me. Your teachers know you and have a plan. It’s all very well for me to come in and make suggestions……” So no ego here. No diva sweeping in to bestow tiny fixes before flying off with a queenly wave and a phrase from Tosca.
Then Andrew came to Bergen to sing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, our wonderful production from Robert Carsen, which finished in a blaze of glory last week, in part thanks to Andrew’s brilliant portrayal of Peter Quince. Happily, Mrs Slater aka Rachel came to visit him. And because of the generosity of Unge Stemmer’s sponsor, the Kavli Foundation, we were able to bring home to Bergen seven Unge Stemmer to sing to Rachel, with Andrew as additional mentor.
It was an extraordinary day. The Åmot sessions, it turned out, had caused a minor revolution. Voices had doubled, confidence had tripled, and music poured from singer after singer. Each young artist had a full lesson. Some were encountering the Nicholls treatment – a fierce mix of common sense and magic – for the first time. Andrew and Rachel squabbled happily over methods, everyone giggled. They encouraged all manner of noises, from gorgeous to grotesque. Shoulders dropped, diaphrams swelled, mouths which had been semi-opened yawned to form perfect figures of eight. We heard Mozart, Bach, Wolf, Schumann. And a series of small miracles.
Leaving, close to tears, I began to drive home, then pulled into the roadside to think. We forget the role of the teacher, the life-changer, the force that delivers what Seamus Heaney described as “the jolt that sets steady the fibrillating heart”. I had one such old lady who taught me not only to play the violin but that the instrument was my life-connection to music, to art and to love.
Lucky Unge Stemmer. Mrs Slater will be back.
Mary Miller, November 2015
Unge Stemmer: Martina Starr-Lassen, Ingvild Schultze-Florey, Susanna Yttri Solsrud, Kristin Frivold, Marita Lervik, Sondre Landvik and Elizaveta Agrafenina