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2015 Vocal Program: Interview with Dr. Louise Toppin

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Dr. Louise Toppin, celebrated soprano and Professor and Chair of the Music Department at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill discusses the music that has inspired her over her career, her approach to the art of teaching, and what she believes students can gain from joining the Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival this summer!

Who first ignited your passion for the art of performing and teaching music?

My teacher George Shirley, who was the first African American tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. He was noted as a singer, actor, and such a strong role model in the performing realm. I had the opportunity when I worked with him at Michigan to see him work with students. I appreciated his level of patience, his attention to detail and his care for teaching. The teaching process takes time, and being encouraging is so important and essential when working with a young singer. He was so extremely patient with every detail.

What repertoire do you find the most personally inspiring and why?

My research area is the music of African Americans, so I have spent my career promoting the operas and art songs of African American composers. I have also done a lot with contemporary music as well. I have premiered over 100 new operas, art songs and oratorios. What has been so fascinating to me has been being a part of that creative process and spending time with composers. Many people have never heard of these composers before, and I love seeing the enjoyment that people have from discovering something that is new and offers a different cultural perspective. I also researched women composers and Spanish composers. I think there are some interesting possibilities that have been forgotten and overlooked not because they are bad compositions, but because they no longer have a champion. I have also had a career singing operatic works of Donizetti, Mozart, Bellini and other western composers. I enjoy working with languages, and characterization, and working on musical detail such as writing my own cadenzas that allows me to personalize the arias…I love the research and academic side of what we do as well! I’m inspired by all types of music!

How would you describe your method/approach to your students’ musical development?

I want to find the best in each student. I start by finding out who they are and what interests them about singing and music. Technique is very important to me, and I spend a lot of time on technique and musical and dramatic detail, but I am also a teacher that wants to incorporate intellectual interest. For instance if a student likes a particular poem or poetry, I like to incorporate a musical setting in our repertoire. Currently, my studio is studying the poem “Mandoline” by Paul Verlaine. We are studying the poetry, the history of the period, Watteau paintings, the instrument the mandolin and each student has a different setting to sing and write a poetry analysis. We discuss a different aspect each week in studio and at the end of the semester we will present a concert of all of the settings. I want to teach my students that there is a larger world out there, and that as musicians we can be diplomats and speak to people though our voices. I want my students to leave my studio equipped to sing and speak on the world’s stage.

What do you think is the greatest advantage for students studying voice here at the Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival?

I believe the advantages are two-fold. First, you have the opportunity to study and participate in another culture. Understanding others means spending time learning their custom and culture. What better way to learn about Italians (the root of opera) and use your Italian than by being in Italy. Second, you have the opportunity to study your craft in a new setting where you don’t have to worry about classes and GPA and all those things that as a college student are your primary focus. You have your teacher there to work with you and he/she is at your disposal for two weeks. An important part of the development of a singer goes beyond lessons in the studio. The transmission of knowledge, wisdom and inspiration in casual conversation by those who have been where you want to go is important for a singer and the setting in Amalfi is perfect for this. As teachers, when you are responsible for students and have classes, you don’t always have time to give each student that extra attention and casual conversation. This is a golden opportunity, and I hope that students will avail themselves of it!

What are you personally looking forward to the most about being at the festival?

I am looking forward to working with students, and having my own students plugged in to and connecting with people from other institutions. They will have the opportunities to coach with other teachers and to listen to other perspectives. And from a teacher’s perspective, I am looking forward to connecting with my colleagues again. What you will find, the longer you have been in this business, is that you will meet a new singer, and ask if they know or have worked with “so and so”. Most often than not, you can instantly have a conversation and form new friendships and alliances based on those commonalities and connections!

For more information about the 2015 Vocal Program and how to apply, click here.


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