A Voice Major Recounts Her Summer at SongFest
Charlotte Maskelony's month of intensive study included numerous Oberlin connections.
During the summer months, Obies travel far and wide to learn, perform, and teach all over the world. But what does a typical summer look like for an Oberlin vocal performance major?
This summer I spent four weeks as a student at SongFest, a festival dedicated entirely to the study of art song, which combines poetry set to music for voice and (usually) piano. Held at the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, SongFest was a deeply transformative experience—and not just because this East Coast mezzo lived the West Coast lifestyle for more than a month.
Throughout SongFest, voice teachers, coaches, performers, and composers from around the world convene to work with singers and collaborative pianists. Students range in age from first-year undergrads to those with established careers. A day at SongFest usually includes yoga, morning and afternoon master classes, lessons, coachings, and an evening concert.
To be honest, I felt semi-heroic for waking up for an 8 a.m. yoga class six days a week for four weeks. Do the math. Anyways, we needed to move to a bigger studio after the first class because there was so much interest, and the next day I walked into the new studio to find floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the L.A. Phil covered in a giant banner of Gustavo Dudamel applauding. Somewhere in the timeless abyss of holding “down dog” for any longer than 15 seconds, it’s truly encouraging to glance up from the sweat tracing your forehead and see Gustavo frozen in praise. Gotta take your wins when you can.
Back to basics. SongFest’s faculty includes educators from schools such as Juilliard, Mannes, USC, and NEC—and this year’s program included master classes and discussions with Schubert legend Graham Johnson, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, L.A. Opera Music Director James Conlon, L.A. Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon, and composers Jake Heggie, Libby Larsen, and Martin Hennessy. Oberlin has strong representation on the faculty, with vocal coach Tony Cho and voice professor Lorraine Manz in addition to alumna soprano Martha Guth ’98, a professor of voice at Ithaca College, and Mark Moliterno ’83, vocalist and founder of YOGAVOICE.
The intimate nature of SongFest led to a community enthusiastic about art song, meaning that texting a group chat “we’re all listening to Schumann in my room, come hang” wasn’t a strange occurrence. The chance to live and work alongside top-level musicians allowed me to realize that even the most famous artists are just curious, passionate students of music who maybe have a few years on you. It makes a career seem more accessible—and, honestly, everyone has to take the same elevator.
One of my favorite performances at SongFest was the final concert, a cabaret of American Songbook classics. Works from the American Songbook are familiar...what are you going to give an audience with “Blue Skies” that they haven’t seen before? Why is this song necessary in this exact moment? How do you express that impulse? Answering those questions showed me new ways to open myself up onstage.
That fearlessness is also a skill I’ve learned at Oberlin. On the last day of SongFest, I walked into a coaching session and was greeted with, “Do you want to sing some Swedish today?” What the coach meant was, “Do you want to sight sing a Swedish art song in actual Swedish?” We took five minutes to cover the basic diction rules of Swedish—a language with which I had no experience—and then we tore through the piece. After the final chord, he looked up and said, “Do you want to try Finnish?”
Handling that situation with decent confidence demonstrates how Oberlin prepared me for high-level musicianship; my choir sight reading, aural skills courses, and many diction classes and coachings empowered me to stare down a new art song in a foreign language and resist the urge to blink.
As SongFest came to an end, I spent the next week meandering back to the East Coast. On my way, I stopped by the Santa Fe Opera, where bass-baritone Cory McGee ’18 was singing in the opening weekend of The Pearl Fishers, and Wolf Trap Opera, where I caught up with bass-baritone Jeremy Harr ’18 in his Wolf Trap debut. I also grabbed a lesson with my pre-Oberlin teacher, soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot ’86. It was a good summer to catch Obies in action!
The lessons I learned at SongFest help me approach my current work with more clarity. Back home in D.C., I’ve been preparing for my roles in the workshop of the new opera The Wild Beast of the Bungalow, with music by Rachel J. Peters and libretto by Royce Vavrek, which will receive its world premiere at Oberlin in January. I especially look forward to this project because, as a first-year student, I served as assistant director on Du Yun ’01 and Vavrek’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Angel’s Bone, which was presented during winter term of 2018. It’s exciting to work with Mr. Vavrek again, this time as a performer.
Learning an opera that was almost literally written last month and has exactly zero recordings available provides plenty of challenges, but by working with the patience required for art song, I feel more confident navigating a new piece. As I return to Oberlin, I’m grateful to SongFest for how the people there taught me to cherish detail and specificity, and then to throw it all off a bridge into a fast-moving river. You do the work, breathe, and trust that spontaneous performance includes your preparation.