Interview with Founders and Directors of the San Miguel Institute of Bel Canto
By Alexis White
Recently, Atención spoke with Joseph McClain and Michael Sylvester, co-founders and co-directors of the San Miguel Institute of Bel Canto, an intensive, four-week professional program taking place from June 11 to July 8 at the Ignacio Ramírez, “El Nigromante,” Cultural Center of the Bellas Artes National Institute. A longtime San Miguel resident, McClain is the founder and former general director of the Austin Lyric Opera and founder of Ópera de San Miguel and its Concurso San Miguel. Sylvester received great acclaim starring in the Metropolitan Opera productions of Simon Boccanegra, Samson et Dalila, and Aida (as Radames).
Thu, Jun11 – Wed, Jul 8
Hernández Macías 75
Joseph McClain 154 9837
Alexis White: From Austin Lyric Opera to Ópera San Miguel and its Concurso,you never really retire, Joe. What inspired you and Michael to create the San Miguel Institute of Bel Canto?
Joseph McClain: We started dreaming. What if we could assemble a Mexican and American opera faculty with proven track records in bringing winners to important competitions and placing lead singers in the ensembles of major houses? Would they come to San Miguel to help rising young opera singers build lifelong, healthy vocal and musical foundations through Bel Canto? Shortly thereafter, the dream became reality and the San Miguel Institute of Bel Canto was born.
AW: Describe Bel Canto, Michael.
Michael Sylvester: Bel Canto is a way of singing developed in Italy during the 18th and 19th centuries. It focuses on the beauty of the voice through several main tenets: open throat, high resonance, low breath, and seamless transitions throughout the vocal range. The technique utilizes refined organic processes, allowing the body’s natural strengths to be harnessed and extended, and producing clear and free tones with agility, precision, and color.
AW: Joe, you mention building a lifelong healthy vocal and musical foundation. How?
JM: The program is intensive with voice lessons, musical coaching, ensemble rehearsals, and stage training, but it has a unique holistic approach. Mornings begin with yoga or Qigong to strengthen and stretch the body, increase fluid movement, enhance balance, and improve awareness of how the body moves through space. More critically, the curriculum includes bodywork sessions.
AW: Why bodywork, Joe?
JM: The voice is an instrument of the body, and it takes the whole body to support the whole voice. We are fortunate to have Ruth Hennessy on our faculty. A masterful bodyworks instructor from New York, she has trained many singers and actors. Her workshops and university courses are popular with choral societies and national singing educators’ organizations. Ruth is schooled in vocal technique, breathing, the physiology of the body and the vocal tract, release therapies, and numerous bodywork disciplines. According to Ruth, many performers hold their bodies in unconscious, habitual patterns of unhelpful tension. For instance, if a singer’s jaw is tense, it isn’t enough to focus on releasing it, because underlying body patterns causing the tense jaw are hidden throughout the whole body. The key to changing patterns lies within the core of the singer’s body. Ten muscles circumscribe the inside of the body and form the core that must be worked on. Besides being the powerhouse for breath and singing support, a strong core stabilizes posture, creates freedom of movement, and protects the back.
AW: Michael, give us a sense of the student body. How are their evenings spent? Do they have time to explore San Miguel?
MS: We have 20 Mexican and American singers, ages 20 to 32, with at least two years of university-level training. They auditioned online, submitting videos and CVs. Two Mexican piano coaching interns are also participating. In the evenings, students attend master classes, lectures, and discussions. They also engage in life coaching consultations to help set career goals and success strategies. David Manning, a professional life coach with a master’s degree in psychology and over 36 years’ experience in education, counseling, and leadership consulting, gives these. Of course we want them to explore our beautiful city, and they will have time!
AW: Joe, will there be any public performances?
JM: We held our first public concert last week at Bellas Artes. This wonderful institution has graciously welcomed the Institute and donated facilities for classes and other programming, and we are extremely grateful. Additional performances on June 27 in the church El Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, July 3 at the Teatro Juárez in Guanajuato, and July 4 at Teatro Ángela Peralta. The programs give students an opportunity to stand before an audience and perform with all the knowledge, coaching, and rehearsal pointers they are acquiring at the Institute. And, of course, they give their audiences a chance to hear beautiful music sung by rising young opera stars.