From Presser Hall to the Met Alum passes on performance techniques

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By Mary Nicholas, News Editor

“Fa la la” means more than you ever dreamed according to Illinois Wesleyan University vocal performance alum Kyle Pfortmiller, ’92, who returned to IWU offering two master classes and a recital tonight in Westbrook Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

Though currently working as a professional opera star, Pfortmiller did not hesitate to share what he had learned about innuendo from his journey through the professional world in his master class Wednesday morning.

Senior vocal performance major Melissa Adamson performed “Fair Robin I Love” from Mechem’s Tartuffe, based on Moliere’s play of the same name.

After her performance Pfortmiller gave his critique in his customary “two things” format.

“Often a great note or a moment of clear intention in the singer’s eye will grab me as a listener.  From that moment, it is clear that there are perhaps many things to comment on but one thing is not enough and three is sometimes overwhelming.  Two is almost always manageable!” he said.

One comment is about delivery of the text. For Adamson, he encouraged her to imply the Cosmo-esque subtext of the phrase “fa la la” when Doreen sings to Marianne in the piece regarding the “unspeakable things” that happened when spouses were apart in Moliere’s day.

His other comment often involves the technical demands of singing. He asked sophomore music education major Megan Morrisette to “think of your phrase like a pearl necklace. The vowels are the pearls and the consonants the spaces in between them,” in her piece “Fancy” by Francis Poulenc.

But the majority of his lessons involved finding the emotions in each piece. He asked sophomore music education major Devin Johnston what his character, a man confessing his love, in “i carry your heart” based on the poem by e. e. cummings, would be feeling in that moment.

“Nervousness, nauseousness, you know,” replied Johnston, drawing as requested on his own life experiences.

Johnston said working with Pfortmiller was “intimidating at first. All I knew was he was an alum who had just made his debut at the Met.”

But Johnston grew more comfortable after Pfortmiller explained the value of focusing your emotion.

“I learned it doesn’t matter how much you know your text or learn the notes. Unless you have a mental image to inspire you, your music will never come alive,” Johnston said.

Pfortmiller said of his personal character development technique, “There’s a responsibility attached to ‘breathing life’ into characters, some of whom have been around for centuries, some of whom we are meeting for the first time and the work to inform them is both humbling and exciting.”

“These master classes are so emotional,” said sophomore vocal performance major Ashleen Davey watching enthusiastically in the crowd.

Pfortmiller is currently in rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera for La Traviata after making his debut with the company in the 2010-2011 season.

But before his career as a professional performer and adjunct professor of voice and opera at Nyack College Manhattan campus, he was a vocal performance major who kept his books in locker 111, always used the practice room across from it, and loved to “pit-sit” in the lounge where music students socialize or nap.

“It’s great to be back in Presser. I’ve been busy, but I will pit-sit before I go.” he said.

Though Pfortmiller had fantastic performance opportunities during his time at IWU, including multiple starring operatic roles, he recalled weekly studio classes as “the most influential” part of the vocal experience. “Being able to get up each week and sing a new song or aria was a major confidence builder,” he said.

“This is your safe space,” explained Pfortmiller to the voice students assembled at the master class of Presser and the Westbrook auditorium stage where he once performed as a winner of the Concerto-Aria competition. “We sing about the dangerous places beyond us.”

Outside exposure has affected Pfortmiller’s goals as a vocalist, “As a student, I always wanted to get the performance. Now the road to the performance is just as fun,” he said.

But some views have not changed. “I still today strive with the same sense of urgency to be an artist,” he said.

In his return to Wesleyan, Pfortmiller sought to impart several of the lessons he wished he had understood as an undergrad.

“Healthy competition is one thing but envying someone else’s ‘track’ or
paying too much attention to where someone else is in relation to yourself just takes energy away from doing your own work,” he said.

He also stressed students should be prepared to “do something else to make ends meet.  Hopefully you can do something you like, but you will have to in your early years.”

He then urged students to incorporate another “manageable” set of two things: “Go to bed 30 minutes earlier, and devote one extra hour a day to practice.”

Pfortmiller’s performance tonight will include music “from Monteverdi, Gluck, Donizetti, Schumann, Gounod, Rogers and Hammerstein and more.  So, something for everyone,” he said.

“I believe that I’m living proof that success can happen to any of you.”