Christophe Rousset – ‘’Every style is perfect in its own way’’

IRSSWhen I saw that the International Rameau Ensemble Summer School ( ) would be featuring Christophe Rousset this year, signing up didn’t take much persuasion.


A brief background on Christophe (more detailed information can be found on the website of Les Talens Lyriques ): he first made his name as a harpsichordist with a recording of Rameau’s flamboyant Pièces de Clavecin, and then championed the works of François Couperin and Domenico Scarlatti – music that is courtly, worldly, ebullient and laced with discreet eroticism. Rousset subsequently formed Les Talens Lyriques, an ensemble dedicated to performing some of the more flamboyant operatic and orchestral works from the 18th century. If, like me, you were fortunate enough witness the collaboration between Les Talens Lyriques and Ann Hallenberg bringing Farinelli’s vocal pyrotechnics to the Wigmore Hall last May, it will have gone down as a concert never to be forgotten.

Let’s face it, the opportunities to go and see French Baroque opera performed in the UK are rare, however with Sarah Connolly bringing Charpentier’s Médee to ENO, and featuring recently in Glyndebourne’s production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, attention to the beauty of this French repertoire does seem to be on the increase, and rightly so.

My current Baroque repertoire focuses mainly on Handel, Bach and Gluck. As a native French speaker, widening my range of repertoire to include Rameau and Lully has always been of interest to me, yet tackling it is a very different kettle of fish; the ornamental styles and expected performance practises are significantly different, as is the feeling when singing the music. With so many stylistic uncertainties, who else would’ve provided a better source of guidance than Christophe Rousset?

During my 30 minute open masterclass on Thursday, I took the Phèdre’s aria “Cruelle mère des amours’’ from Hippolyte et Aricie by Rameau. The aria opens Act 3; Phèdre (who harbours an illicit love for her stepson, Hippolyte) is bargaining with the Goddess Venus and imploring her to make Hippolyte receptive to her feelings.



French vocal music is about text. The text and the music are serving the libretto, so it’s not about singing, it’s more about the declamation;

  • Why are you singing – what is the intention?
  • Why do you stop? Use your pauses to allow the audience to witness development of thought.
  • Do you allow anyone else to talk?
  • Show your engagement to the music prior to you singing; your impulse to sing must be in response to a sentiment.
  • The words should be expressed more than the ideas themselves.
  • You must be constantly active /engaged, whether vocally, or in thought.


‘Playing’ sadness is weak. A character may be rejected, angry, bitter, abandoned, and vengeful – but sadness should be avoided because it is a ‘flat’ adjective.

  • Make clear what emotional state you are in.


Directly translated as ‘unequal notes’, it reflects the conscious distortion of the rhythm from its written values.

The main function of notes inégales was to grace passages, most of which are melismatic in character i.e as a form of embellishment for passages that are primarily step-wise and predominantly legato. It was not used to tamper with the essence of the melody, but more as a means of emphasis and embellishment. These ‘notes inégales’ were rarely notated, yet it was expected that the singers abide by this practice (or alternatively, it was written predominantly in the instrumental lines, but never in the vocal line – to allow the singer the freedom to select which sections they would apply this practice to).


This practise was so much a part of the manner of playing in France, that playing in an equal style was often indicated by vertical slashes over the notes, staccato marks, slurs over more than two notes, or the word marqué written under the music.

I found singing in this style a revelation, and such a helpful tool in emphasising the text one step further without feeling bound by what is printed on the page.


  • French music is about text, declamation, grammar, theatrical gestures and of course the inventive 18th century dances in Rameau; invest in ensuring you fully understand the historical, musical, and theatrical aspects to the opera before you even attempt the individual arias.

The two day course culminated in an evening concert of pre-selected operatic scenes and chamber ensembles – a perfect way to put into practise what had been so thoroughly and enthusiastically explained by Christophe, leaving us all looking forward to applying these new skills to our personal repertoire.

I look forward to seeing what the IRSS have planned for 2016/17!

(Photography credits to: )

Sarah Connolly Masterclass (ROH / NOS)

If there’s one thing that anyone will tell you about me, it’s how my unashamed mega appreciation of all things Sarah Connolly. There hasn’t been a single performance I’ve witnessed where I haven’t come away feeling totally inspired and wanting to find the nearest practise room to try things out!

Last night Sarah took a masterclass at the ROH with two mezzos (Hanna-Liisa Kirchen and Heather Lowe from the National Opera Studio), and I knew we were in for a treat. I sat, observed, felt green with envy and scribbled notes during the course of the evening. Apologies for the flurry of bullet-points – I hope you find these snippets ring true to your own singing, and you try applying a few in your next practise session:

  • Not all singers end up on the stage. Some end make successful careers as recitalists and chorus members. She had no idea what she wanted to do at 23/24, and it was only around the age of 32 where she thought she might like to dive into the world of opera.

Notes raised during Hanna-Liisa’s working session on Handel’s ‘’Where shall I fly’’, Hercules

  • What is your aria doing to you emotionally? What is it you are expressing? How can you emphasize things differently? Give your text reality and meaning.
  • Speaking your text through in a declamatory manner will allow you to find the natural rhythmic structure, and enable you to sing it as if it were spoken.
  • Don’t always worry about the meter in Handel; ensure you are always moving the text i.e. often you will discover that you must treat recitative accompagnato as secco.
  • Rubato is essential in all Baroque as it provides the music with a sense of expression and flow.
  • Don’t make your recitative appear to be ‘known’ – make it be the first time you’re having these thoughts. Think of your thought, and sell it!
  • Fill rests with energy and intention.
  • If you have awkward breaths to take, make them expressive. The audience probably won’t even notice.
  • Ornamentation: ensure you ornament on the correct part of the word. I.e the word ‘Pianti’, the ornaments should happen on pianti not on the weaker part of the word.
  • Make the most of explosive consonants ‘sposa’ – helps engage the support and natural flow of breath rather than wasting breath.

On the train journey home I mulled over all the musical and emotional responses I’d witnessed to Sarah’s guidance throughout the evening. I’ve no doubt that many of us have teachers that week in, week out, encourage us to apply these exact same notions to our own singing, but, witnessing the changes as an outsider really drives home just how important the emotional connection and consequent delivery is.

Personally, I’ve often caught myself feeling so totally obsessed with technicalities that I’ve often become somewhat apologetic about the emotional delivery for fear of the breath / ornamentation / expression / movement police. Perhaps we could all benefit from allowing ourselves practise sessions, lessons and coachings where the focus is on the sheer delivery of the aria (as if it were the actual performance) and seeing how this subconsciously resolves a lot of the technical issues we thought we had with ‘that particular phrase’.

My favourite part of the evening was Sarah exclaiming ‘’don’t worry about the possible car crash, I’m expecting it! Embrace it!’’ I think we all need to push ourselves to have that car crash, and explore all likely avenues – isn’t this singing malarkey meant to be fun, after all?!