Saturday, September 27, 2014

Singer Jill Feldman talks about her career, the early music movement and about training young singers

On September 26th I spoke to singer Jill Feldman at her home in Arezzo, Italy. An early music and Baroque specialist, she is known for her exceptional technical skill and her ability to convey the meaning behind a text.

PH: Professor Jill Feldman, where were you born and where did you grow up?

Jill Feldman: I was born in Los Angeles, California and was there for the first 17 years of my life. From there, I started moving north in California – first to Santa Barbara, where I went to university and then I moved to the San Francisco Bay area during the “flower” generation where I stayed until my departure for Europe in 1980.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

JF: No, not at all. There are no other musicians in the family. My grandfather used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera recordings as well as recordings of Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein. But, of course, there was nothing German allowed in our house. We were raised as reformed Jews in Los Angeles and there was no German music in the house, not even Bach and especially no German Lied. I discovered the entire German repertoire later, quite by accident, when I was 19, and I absolutely love it all now.

PH: What was your first musical training?

JF: I took piano lessons from the age of 8 till about 14, at which point I did not feel like being that serious, so I started singing music from American musicals. My piano teacher then taught me how to accompany myself on the piano with that material. I became rather anti Classical music because of my political activities - anti Vietnam, etc. I was anti society, with opera and symphony representing society. The music I thrived on in this period was San Francisco rock and roll from the Psychedelic Movement (groups like “The Grateful Dead”, Jefferson Airplane” and musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.)

PH: And your university studies?

JF: At the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was a Dramatic Literature major, specializing in Shakespeare’s plays. I had an excellent Shakespeare professor in college for two years and he sparked my brain. It can sometimes take just one teacher to do that! And Shakespeare was also my best teacher. It was there that I started singing again and addressed playing piano anew and seriously. My piano teacher was a Hungarian called Erno Daniel. He had been a student of Dohnanyi (who had studied with Bartok). So I was playing the piano, but I have very small hands and came up against those limitations. I was also becoming far more interested in singing, switched and became a General Music major, with an emphasis on vocal studies. At that point, I became interested in early music, meaning the English Renaissance and the early Italian Baroque, the latter because the Shakespeare plays are placed in Italy. The music of 1550-1600 became my passion. Also, while still at university, I taught the music part of Shakespeare courses at the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

PH: So you then moved to the San Francisco Bay area.

JF: Yes. When I moved to the Bay Area, I started singing with Philip Brett’s choir and had my first solos there. Philip Brett was a British specialist in English Renaissance music of Shakespeare’s time. (A professor at the University of California, he did the editions of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons for Stainer & Bell). I was studying voice with Lillian Loran. She was of a Russian background, but had studied in Italy with an Italian opera singer. She would say: “Well, okay, but here is a standing room ticket to the opera”. There I heard wonderful voices. So, due to her great patience, I became hooked on Italian opera.

PH: Who else influenced your career?

JF: When still at university, a very important thing happened to me. I had gone to study Shakespeare at a summer course in Stratford, England, and was invited to spend the free week in Salzburg by some German and Austrian friends of mine. So, against the will of my family, I went to Germany and then to Salzburg. It was then that I heard a solo recital of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I was 19 and did not speak a word of German. This event changed my life: it changed my preconceptions about the German language and opened my mind to vocal music in general. I owe Fischer-Dieskau a lot. He was a great artist. He opened my mind, and mine was a hard mind to open!! I was very stubborn.

PH: So what next?

JF: I went back to San Francisco and lived there in and around the Bay Area for 8 years, singing with Brett’s chorus, getting my first solos and singing my first operas. I was then awarded the Alfred Hertz Memorial Scholarship to study in Europe for a year with an early music specialist. So I went to Basel in 1980, living there and studying with Andrea von Ramm. I have lived in Europe ever since.

PH: How come?

JF: Well, in my last year in the USA, I sang in a master class for a certain William Christie. Having remembered me from that master class, he called me when I was in Basel and invited me to Paris to join his ensemble – Les Arts Florissants. I thought it was crazy as I was specializing in Italian music and only spoke high school French. But Christie told me not to worry. I packed my bags, and with Andrea von Ramm’s blessing, moved to Paris and joined the ensemble, with which I sang for 6 years. There I learned French and French style and got a lot of experience. Singing in that ensemble in Paris really launched my career in Europe, although I had been singing for 10 years. I moved to France and became a specialist in French music…much to my own surprise!

PH: Where did that lead your career?

JF: I sang Baroque opera and was also a recitalist. Singing recitals came out of a great love for a more intimate setting and from that one recital that had changed my life so much. I gave a lot of recitals of French, English and Italian 17th century music. At that point, I also started to sing in German. It took me longer to perfect my German as I had started so late. But my passion was for French and Italian music and, of course, 17th century English music – Purcell, Dowland, John Blow… I was a specialist in the 17th century.

PH: Would you like to talk about your own teaching?

JF: Yes. I have always taught and, when I was living in San Francisco, I used to take my students to my teacher Lillian Lauren if something came up I did not know how to handle. If there was a problem I had never encountered, I would watch her teach my pupils for an hour. So she also taught me much about pedagogy. And I also brought her with me to Jerusalem, where I began teaching at the Jerusalem Music Centre in 1986. As a successful singer in Europe, I was also asked to teach summer courses in France. I started teaching at the Conservatory of Strasbourg and, in 1986, I was invited to join the faculty of the Royal Music Academy of The Hague as a guest teacher to teach French music. I am still there, teaching there once a month…one of those guests who never leave! And also, till last year, I was teaching at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Zurich; there, I taught the whole repertoire, which was really nice for me, not just early music, but also the Lied and “melodie” and Italian lyric opera. I taught there for eight years as a full professor.

PH: You have taught much in Israel.

JF: Yes. My first visit was in 1986. I taught at the Jerusalem Music Centre and at the the Early Music Workshop for 12 years, sometimes coming to Jerusalem 2 or 3 times a year. And I did concert tours of Israel. I stopped all this in 1998, when my daughter was 5 and started school. And I did not return to Israel until 2 years ago, when Drora Bruck invited me to teach at the Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar, which she runs with her superb organizational skills. I am about to return to teach at the 5th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar. I would like to mention that one of my students at that first course in Jerusalem (in Ein Kerem, actually) was Miriam Meltzer. Miriam was already an accomplished singer at that time and had taken courses with Emma Kirkby and other early music specialists. We knew at that time that it would never be enough to just have occasional courses in early music in Israel, so I tried to convince Miriam to teach. She is now a prized voice teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

PH: Do you compose or edit?

JF: No. I have always been an interpreter, but I stopped singing five years ago. One needs to know when to “turn the page”.

PH: Do you write in words?

JF: Very occasionally I will write a small article.

PH: Let’s talk about the authentic movement and where you stand with that.

JF: Of course, I was part of the second generation of it, as I see it. The first generation was in England with people like David Munrow, Alfred Deller and Thurston Dart, then in Holland with Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Brüggen and, of course, Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Austria. I was the generation just after them, but was very lucky, as, at the time I started my interest in early music, there were very few people doing it. Therefore, I had a lot of chances that would be much harder to get now. So I feel I was there…in the second generation of the movement, at least in singing, just one generation later. Its influence has spread into a consciousness throughout all repertoire now. I think people realize that we also have to question performance practice of Berlioz or performance practice of Schubert or Beethoven in the same way that we question performance practice of John Dowland. That consciousness has been raised.

PH: What is your advice to students training to be early music singers?

JF: I think it is a mistake for them to specialize too soon. I am very happy to teach early music courses to young people, but I do not think they should sing only that. I have actually had students coming to me in tears because their teachers were forcing them to sing Schubert. My answer is “You could do a lot worse!” (Schubert is one of my favorite composers.) I believe that they should have a wide scale of musical knowledge and, for that reason, we are starting to blend vocal departments so that they do not just teach early music as against lyric singing. There is no difference in vocal technique; it is a question of style. Of course, I am a specialist in several styles - from medieval, Baroque and Classical music - one style, just as one conductor would be Wagnerian and another, a Verdian. Although I specialize in a style as a singer and teacher, I can teach the whole repertoire and prefer working with people who have open minds and who are willing to work in a wide range of repertoire until they are old enough to know what their voice should be and to what their voice is suited to be doing. Of course, there are different kinds of voices: some are better for agility repertoire whereas other voices cannot do agility and are better for a more lyric vocal style. People should not make those stresses too soon. I think it narrows them as musicians.

PH: How do you find attitudes to early music singing?

JF: There is still a terrible preconception that people sing early music because they cannot do anything else; that is very boring and old-fashioned but the attitude still exists, especially here in Italy. So we still have to fight to convince them that there is nothing different: a voice works or it does not work. Then there is style and, of course, there are stylistic differences. That does not mean that a Mozart singer is less important than a Puccini singer. They just have different kinds of voices; the Puccinian usually cannot sing Mozart…and the Mozart singer may not sing Puccini very well. So the same goes for Händel and, going even further back, Purcell: it is a certain kind of mindset and it demands certain stylistic comprehension. People should not be so threatened by the concept of early music; it is really not that scary!

PH: When teaching master classes where do you place the most emphasis?

JF: Well, it depends on the context. I never can avoid technique because it is usually connected to whatever problems the student is having with the repertoire that he/she is trying to sing. So I end up doing a lot of technical work. I always try to work in coordination with whoever the main technical teacher is so that we speak the same language and do not get in the way of each other. Basically, there is not that much to know about singing but there is a lot to get a feel for. However, as I said before, the voice is either working correctly or it is not. At present in Israel, you have a lot of people teaching in the old German or Russian schools. Those are quite different from the Italian school I have studied. However, I have had some training in the German technique. But “all roads lead to Rome!” They all lead to the same place but there are different ways of getting there. It is a question of vocabulary.

PH: You are known as a singer who places much emphasis on the verbal text.

JF: That is true. Most of the repertoire that I sang and listen to is heavily text-based. Of course, there is music that is not that way that I also can also appreciate – some contemporary music, for one thing, which may not have anything to do with text – but coming out of the 17th century and declamation in Italian, French, English and German (with my experience of having hated the German language and then falling in love with it) I tend to gravitate towards music that is based on text. So I do not train singers to “make sounds” – I train them to express text. That is my school. In fact, the technique of my teacher’s teacher, Toti Dal Monte, an Italian lyric opera singer, was based on “la voce parlata” (the spoken voice), the coordination of breath and speech. I get very disturbed when I cannot understand a text being sung, especially in music where it is so important.

PH: Have you been involved in contemporary music?

JF: Yes. Of course, the combination of early- and contemporary music is very successful because composers writing contemporary pieces tend to gravitate towards aspects of control of the voice that are necessary for singing earlier repertoire; for example, control of vibrato, comprehension of text and not going just for sound. And there is also intonation, which lyric singers do not tend to work on enough. I have sung a lot of contemporary music, including several pieces my husband Kees Boeke wrote. But, in my earlier years in San Francisco, when I was 18, I went on tour with a contemporary ensemble performing works by Californian composers. That was one of my first European tours, singing in these strange pieces. I loved doing that. And the very last recording I did was of the songs of Charles Ives, which I love!

PH: When it is not music you are busy with, what do you enjoy?

JF: The outdoors. I love to hike in the mountains and to go camping. My husband and I go tent camping all the time. This year we were in Corsica and Sardinia and we tend to camp a lot in France. The camping trips include longs walks. My walking days are temporarily curtailed due to my breaking an ankle on a walk this last winter. But I love to be in nature, in the wilderness. At home we have olive trees and make olive oil. I also love art and go to see it in museums and churches. (We live in the right place for that.) I am also taking drawing classes, but am not very good at it. Am also still working on my languages. And I love theatre. When I am in London I go to Stratford and to the fantastic new Globe Theatre, where they are now performing in the original pronunciation of Elizabethan English. They also use music from the period. And when in Paris, I see whatever theatre Peter Brook is directing there. We travel a lot. And the great love of my life is my daughter, who is studying at university in the USA, so I visit her.

PH: How would you sum up your career so far?

JF: I feel like I have been extremely lucky because I did not start out with high aspirations…I did not even like lyric opera in the beginning! But I got to do amazing things and to sing with very, very great musicians. So, as a singer and a teacher, I am a very lucky and fulfilled person. I love teaching and transmitting my knowledge and experience to the younger generation.

PH: Jill, many thanks. It has been most interesting talking to you. So many of us have been touched by your performance and enriched by your teaching.


  1. And there is a book, in french, about Jill : Jill Feldman, soprano incandescente - Michel Bosc - ed. L'Harmattan, 2015.

  2. Very Good Article Thanks For


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