Hidden away in Florence’s hot, dusty labyrinth of noisy streets lies a cool green oasis, where shady paths are lined with lemon trees, box hedges, sweet lavender and fragrant rosemary. These are the gardens of the Palazzo Corsini al Prato, the grand home of the New Generation Festival and the intended stylish headquarters of a radical new approach to training the operatic stars of tomorrow.

Mascarade Opera Studio will open in September next year in the city where the art form had its birth and where the Renaissance blossomed and flourished – an inspiring setting for eight exceptional young singers and two répétiteurs who will be chosen to enjoy nine months of individually-tailored tuition from some of the leading artists and teachers of our time – and all fully-funded, with €25,735 invested directly in each student.

Sir Thomas Allen and Susan Bullock are just two of the leading names from opera associated with the new project, which has the ambition to become a world-class institution. The 26-year-old conductor, producer and Chief Executive of MOS Maximilian Fane, who co-founded the New Generation Festival in 2017 and who proposed establishing the new Studio, said: “The aim of our programme is not just to prepare young and exceptionally talented artists for major careers in opera. We want to re-evaluate opera training and the function of opera in society.”

Part of that re-evaluation is to take positive action to address the gender imbalance in the opera world by appointing a female majority among teaching staff and on the advisory board.

Applications open in September this year. Candidates, expected to be at post-graduate level, will initially be chosen from video submissions, and then live auditions in Florence, London, Berlin and Glasgow. The age limit is set at 32, but, in exceptional circumstances this could be stretched to 34. As Mascarade’s Director, Dr Ralph Strehle told me: “Most schemes stop at age 30 but sometimes bigger voices need another couple of years or so to find their level.”

Fundamental to the studio’s holistic approach – and where it differs radically from other programmes – is its concentration on the development of psychological performance skills, including resilience and assertiveness training and personal evaluation. “Resilience is often misunderstood to mean ‘bouncing back’,” said Dr Strehle. “It is in fact psychological flexibility, the ability to take risks, to be adventurous, to have an open mind.”

Strehle is a pioneer in this field. As Associate Head of Vocal Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he designs individual psychological skills programmes for musicians and is currently writing his second PhD in the field of music psychology. He is developing what he calls “a kind of stress inoculation programme” for musicians. “Established artists tell me they did not have a clue how to cope with stress when they were starting out, and I wonder how much excellence has been lost because people had no training in such things.”

His own route to directing this unique enterprise is an unusual one. Some years ago, as a young lecturer in critical theory at Royal Holloway, University of London, he found he disliked using a microphone, so took singing lessons to improve his projection. His teacher was so impressed with his tenor voice he switched careers and trained as a professional singer. He went on to join the chorus at Scottish Opera and took some small roles in German opera houses before combining that experience with his academic prowess to develop a new approach to training singers.

He had grown up playing football (“I had one famous moment, playing for the German under-14 team”) and later, with the guidance of a colleague specialising in sports psychology at Strathclyde University, he used sports science to develop performance skills training for musicians. “I look at how we engage with each other, ask what are our core values, our motivation. What is important to you as a musician and as a person, how do you expect to be treated?”

Dr Strehle believes the Studio will offer a unique alternative to other young artists’ programmes, such as the Jette Parker scheme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Harewood Young Artists scheme at English National Opera. “Laudable as they are, they are very much tied to a house and its programme. They have a different purpose,” he said.

He is not a big fan of competitions but sees that they have become an important part of establishing a singing career. “We will do a lot of preparation, modelled on sports training. If an event is six or eight weeks away, we will structure those weeks to the point where the singer will feel they have already been in the competition by the time it actually arrives,” he said. Aptitude and attitude training will encourage the young singer to view the challenge of competition as an opportunity to be musically expressive – without succumbing to pressure.

Mascarade Opera Studio believes very firmly in the tradition of bel canto singing, which, it maintains, fosters the most expressive and uniquely personal qualities in the human voice. The principles of sostenuto, legato, messa di voce, clear diction, warm vibrato and unified registration “are objectives to be made anew in the body, mind and voice of every artist”.

Running from September to June, the Studio will offer repertoire training, role study, language courses in Italian and German, acting, stagecraft and career management. Each singer will be given a role to study throughout the year with their allocated répétiteur. That role may be taken from the New Generation Festival’s forthcoming main summer production and that study may turn into a cover role for the Festival. Studio artists will also perform in recitals, masterclasses and in special orchestral showcases in Florence and Berlin, in front of the public and operatic agencies and industry professionals.

The Studio will also have residencies at Villa Medici Guilini in Milan, with the aim of embedding Mascarade’s influence firmly in the cultural fabric of Italy, not just in Florence. Fernanda Giulini is an honorary director of Mascarade Opera Studio and will host the residencies, where stars such as honorary president soprano Mariella Devia will work with the young artists.

Répétiteurs will receive regular coaching and technique classes as well as masterclasses designed to support their development as players, coaches and conductors. Emphasis will be placed on expressive detail, understanding of singers’ breathing, knowledge of operatic languages and the replication of orchestral colour and scale on the keyboard.

A key feature of the new Studio is the female majority on its artistic advisory board. Project coordinator Allie Crerar said: “Everyone on the advisory board has an amazing track record but I’m bowled over by some of the powerhouse women that we have: Jessica Cottis, Sam McShane, Anush Hovhannisyan, Carmen Santoro, Claudia Assmann and Susan Bullock. Following #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements, having these strong female voices – literally and figuratively – on the board and also on the teaching staff I hope means we can build the institution in the way that supports and provides equal opportunities and avoids the abuses of power and gender dynamics that have been a feature of the performing arts world for far too long.”

Click here to read more about Mascarade Opera Studio. 

This article was sponsored by Mascarade Opera Studio.