Even if they’re not conversant in the languages, most English-speaking opera singers know a smattering of Italian or German, enough at least to read and learn their parts. That’s often not the case with Russian, which places a seemingly insurmountable barrier between aspiring vocalists and the country’s rich operatic heritage. That’s where Ghenady Meirson comes in.
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“I’ve worked with many singers over the years,” Meirson says. “People know to come to me in Philadelphia for coaching in the Russian repertory.”
In recent years Meirson, who spends most of the year on the faculty of the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music, has expanded that coaching role into a summer-long workshop. The Russian Opera Workshop is the only vocal workshop in the United States devoted exclusively to the Russian repertoire, and has drawn students from across the country as well as from Canada and Mexico. “I’ve even had applications from Russia,” he says.
Designed for students with a range of experience from undergraduates to professionals, the program provides a month-long immersion in language learning, vocal training and Russian music, culminating in a free concert performance of a Russian opera. For its third season, the workshop is presenting Sergey Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini,” which premiered in Moscow in 1906 but has never been performed in Philadelphia.
The biggest challenge for students, Meirson says, is becoming comfortable with the Russian tongue. “The language itself is a barrier block for many people. I’m in business because I unlock that a little bit for people. Ultimately it’s about making music, and the language has its own idiosyncrasies. If somebody doesn’t have the experience with it, it may be tough.”
The program, which after just two full seasons has seen alumni hired by five opera companies for the roles learned in the workshop, boasts instructors from some of the city’s most prestigious music schools teaching not only Russian music but the realities of the opera world. “The faculty is top shelf,” Meirson says. “So whether they like it or not, students get a feel for what it’s like out there. They’re hearing what they need to fix, what they need to work on, what the industry wants, and what they should do to succeed. It’s invaluable experience.
'Francesca Da Rimini'
Helen Corning Warden Theater, the Academy of Vocal Arts
1920 Spruce St.