Master class

José van Dam, singer and teacher

Private music lessons

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José van Dam — Teacher, baritone

Florence Bonnafous — Mezzo-soprano (student)

Renaud Drouot — Baritone (student)

Marie-Paule Fayt — Soprano (student)

Caroline Fevre — Mezzo-soprano (student)

Vincent Le Texier — Baritone (student)

Hélène Perraguin — Mezzo-soprano (student)

Jean-Louis Soumagnas — Baritone

Olivier Bernager — A collection by

François Manceaux — A collection by

Program notes

In this masterclass, José van Dam takes us inside some of the greatest masterpieces of dramatic music, covering every aspect of the singer's repertoire, from Le Nozze di Figaro to Pelléas et Mélisande, from bel canto to lieder by way of the French melodie.

This film speaks of a time when opera was looking for new foundations. Vilified as the embodiment of bourgeois art in the 1970s and 1980s, caught in a spiral of luxurious productions which neglected its theatrical dimension, the genre had need of powerful personalities in those years in order to negotiate a turning point in its history. Singers like José Van Dam and Ruggero Raimondi directors like Patrice Chéreau, conductors like Giuseppe Sinopoli and Pierre Boulez were to give it the boost it needed. an undisputed star, anointed by Herbert von Karajan with whom he appeared in and recorded several now legendary productions, sought after by the most eminent conductors, such as Sir Georg Soltin and the most prestigious opera houses, José Van Dam was a key figure in this revival of the operatic art. His simple and direct personality, without any of the defects which turn even the finest artists into glamorous figureheads, his professionalism and his outstanding voice have made him a Belgian treasure and earned him a place among the greatest baritones of the 20th century.

The first part of the film, 'Building a voice', filmed entirely in Liège except for its introduction, shows the vocal work that precedes the process of interpretation. Addressing singers who already possess a voice but do not yet have real stage experience, José Van Dam dispenses basic advice on breathing, the diaphragm, the mask, articulation. These physiological considerations which could just as well apply to anyone who wishes to live healthily are here approached in terms of diction, vocal timber, and correct intonation. In Van Dam's view, one must develop a conscious balance between appropriate vocalization, musical expression, and the meaning of the words.

In the second part, 'Building a role', filmed in Lyon, Van Dam is seen at working sessions with three professional singers: Jean-Louis Soumagnas, Vincent Le Texier and Hélène Perraguin. The subject is different here: the master-singer sketches the characters, explains his conception of the roles and goes into the details of the vocal lines.

The film ends with the solitary work of the artist, who was then (1990) singing the role of Jokanaan in the French version of Strauss's Salome at the Opéra de Lyon. He is seen alone at the piano in a rehearsal room, checking his phrasing, his diction, his intonation and so on before adapting them to the demands of the stage. Finally we see him in performance, taking up a Christ-like attitude as he sings Jokanaan's famous imprecation: 'Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.'

Private music lessons: twelve hugely influential programs broadcast by French television between 1987 and 1991. The guiding principle for Olivier Bernager and François Manceaux was to capture the art of the leading performers of our time, live in concert but also and above all in a teaching environment.

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Further listening: featured works

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