Benjamin Appl
© Sony Classical & Uwe Arens

“Sing it unmusically, as ugly as possible.” Soprano Ilze Grēvele-Skaraine has just finished a lovely rendering of Agathe’s Prayer from Der Freischütz. Now baritone Benjamin Appl, giving an online masterclass for the Riga Jurmala Academy, wants her to go against one of her best qualities, her innate musicality. Grēvele-Skaraine tries her best.

"I hope it came across that these ugly, unmusical phrases are not the intended end result, but just a way to make the students aware of how flexible they can be,” Appl explains to me via Skype two weeks later. He wants to underline the fact that singers should be in total control of their voice. The way they colour a note or how much vibrato they apply – these should be deliberate decisions. Nothing should be formulaic, least of all emotional intent. “I want you to write an emotion above each phrase.” Homework!

Benjamin Appl is one of the leading recitalists of his generation, so you’d expect the young Latvian participants to hang on his every word. But he also happens to be a highly effective teacher, efficient and empathic. He starts by listening to the student singing a full aria without interrupting. “Otherwise, you destroy the relationship before it begins,” he explains. After asking what they’d like to work on, he tackles specific issues, quickly abandoning exercises that don’t seem to be working. At the end he asks each participant to list three things they will take away from the lesson. Besides being very methodical, Appl is also a really nice guy. He makes a point of acknowledging and complimenting the pianists, for example. 

Ilze Grēvele-Skaraine
© Riga Jurmala Academy

“I got several useful suggestions about technique and musicality”, says Grēvele-Skaraine, “but the humility and warmth that Benjamin projected really helped me to feel open and comfortable.” Nobody expects distance learning, now endemic during the pandemic, to be more than second best to the real thing. This particular masterclass, however, combining perceptive teaching with reliable technology, comes very close.

Appl is impressed by the quality of the connection to the studio in Riga. “The day before, a sound engineer from Munich came to my home town, Regensburg [in Bavaria, ed.] and made sure everything was working properly. It was incredibly well done. It was, I think, the closest you can get to a live masterclass.” Soprano Viktorija Pakalniece concurs. “To be honest, Benjamin read me like an open book, which I didn’t expect at all. The fact that that was possible long distance really surprised me!”

Naturally, there are also a couple of limitations. “The advantage of being with people in the same room is that you can feel their energy,” says Appl. “How open or distant a person is – that’s something you can’t always perceive through a camera.” Not that he feels there was any communication barrier with the singers. Besides turning up very well-prepared, they were also highly receptive.

Viktorija Pakalniece
© Riga Jurmala Academy

With voices there’s also the issue of whether the recording equipment renders them faithfully. “Some voices just sound better when recorded than others. For example, they say that Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was married five times, four times to women and the fifth time to a microphone.” He’s referring to the legendary German baritone who passed away in 2012. Appl was his last pupil and, as such, is part of the living legacy of the celebrated Lieder interpreter. Does Appl, who teaches German song at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, use Fischer-Dieskau's teaching methods?

“Yes and no. We spent many hours together, so obviously he had a huge influence on me. But I do try to find an individual way of teaching. I’ll use his exercises if I think they suit a particular student.” He’s grateful that when he met Fischer-Dieskau, he was older than the other students in his year. Although Appl had been a boy chorister with the prestigious Regensburger Domspatzen, he first worked in a bank and then studied Business Administration before deciding to become a singer. 

"The danger when you work with someone who is your hero, is that you try to imitate him and take everything he tells you as the gospel truth.” The life experience he had already garnered helped him retain a strong sense of who he was as a person as well as a singer. He is very keen on imparting to his students the importance of knowing themselves and their unique worth. This is why he invites each participant to list three reasons why a casting director at an audition should hire them rather than the other candidates.

The responses are quite revealing. While one student rattles off three positive points without hesitation, another finds it difficult to come up with just one. By putting what they have to offer into words they will have something concrete to help them deal with rejection and criticism. “There will be moments when other singers are preferred to you, and this can feel very cruel.” But positivity helps you stay focused. “At the beginning of their studies, students are fresh and open-minded. But sometimes they get so much confusing advice, that they lose this sense of being grounded, and with it the joy of making music.”

Benjamin Appl, Daniils Kuzmins and accompanist L.Tirele during the masterclass
© Riga Jurmala Academy

Appl recommends that singers surround themselves with a small group of people that they trust and take advice only from them. The group could include a music teacher, a family member, a conductor, or perhaps their manager. Because listening to every unsolicited piece of advice can drive one crazy. Singers also need to put criticism, especially bad reviews, into perspective. “There isn’t one politician or pop singer who is liked by absolutely everyone. If twenty to forty percent of the audience likes us, that’s more than enough.” 

Hopefully all four young participants will find the guidance they need. In the meantime, Appl’s masterclass is chock-full of tips. He polishes German diction, explains the drawback of filling your lungs with too much air and picks out repetitive mannerisms. He also doles out nuggets of professional wisdom, such as the one thing conductors most appreciate in singers: correct rhythm. And there are practical tips on how to “embrace the camera”, as important today as performing in front of a live audience. 

Some of his recommendations are tailored to the students’ personalities. He congratulates baritone Daniils Kuzmins on his self-confidence, but suggests that “it’s also good to show some fragility.” Mezzo Sniedze Kaņepe is encouraged to let her lively personality come through in her performance. And he urges everyone to “find their own niche” by exploring unusual repertoire. This will help them stand out during auditions and catch the attention of concert programmers and record labels.

Appl realises this is a lot to take in during one masterclass. He remembers attending masterclasses and forgetting many of the small details, such as which note skewed sharp. “I try to impart one idea that students can take away from the session, whether it’s a technical point, or something related to the piece they’re singing.”

And does he have any particular advice for aspiring singers from the Baltic states? Besides making foreign languages a priority, he thinks that Baltic students should take advantage of their geographical and cultural proximity to both Russia and Central Europe. “It’s a great advantage to be able to navigate between these two worlds. Or to explore whether their voice and personality fit within one singing tradition more easily than the other."

Benjamin Appl, Ilze Grēvele-Skaraine and accompanist I. Purina during the masterclass
© Riga Jurmala Academy

He also has an important message for all young singers who may be feeling despondent about the current state of things. If at all feasible financially, now is not the time to take major career decisions. “Maybe they can move back in with their parents, or find another way to save money.” Performing may not be possible at the moment, but there’s always plenty to do. Discovering new repertoire, for example, or putting in what Appl calls “desk time”. By which he means examining harmonics and dynamics in scores, translating texts, and reading up on composers and poets.

When the pandemic brought Appl’s gruelling performing and travelling schedule to a halt, he became aware that he was overtired and had become irritable. "Corona made me realise how much I love singing and sharing music. And I’m so grateful for getting this feeling back.” He’s been using this time to develop new projects, one of which emerged from a documentary he starred in for Latin American television, a comparison of German Lieder and tango called Breaking Music

He is also involved in projects with a string quartet and a lute player, and has put together a programme of songs by Schubert and Carlos Guastavino, an Argentinian composer known as the Schubert of the Pampas. “All these ideas keep me busy and brighten my day.” New projects and music: a great plan of action, and not just for singers.

You can watch the Riga Jurmala Academy masterclasses with Benjamin Appl and other singers and musicians via Bachtrack.

This article was sponsored by the Riga Jurmala Academy.