CHAUTAUQUA - For the culturally inclined, Chautauqua Institution can be something of an Aladdin's Cave, full of so many wonders, it's hard to take them all in.
Many of them are bruited to the heavens, while others are almost impossible to learn about unless one is inside the gates and connected to many who are ''on the inside track'' at Chautauqua.
One such treasure will take place on Wednesday and Thursday of the coming week: a production of the opera ''The Crucible'' by Robert Ward. You can hear it, very well-presented, in Fletcher Music Hall, one of the newest buildings on the grounds. It begins at 7:30 p.m. both evenings.
Marlena Kleinman Malas works her magic on a student in her studio at Chautauqua Institution. Malas is highly respected as a teacher of skilled singers, and was featured on the cover of Opera News with the headline “Greatest Teacher in the World.”
I want to call your attention to the performances of the opera, and I'll tell you more about it later. Right now, I want to share what I learned from an afternoon chat recently with the creative genius behind the coming performances: Marlena Kleinman Malas.
A GREAT TEACHER
For 31 years, Marlena Malas has taught classical singing at Chautauqua. When she's not working with her large collection of gifted singers at Chautauqua, she can be found teaching similarly gifted students at the Juilliard School in New York City, or at the Manhattan School of Music, or at her alma mater, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Other than that, she often travels at the behest of opera companies and successful singers, offering master classes and providing coaching to singers who are experiencing difficulties of some type with their singing, or who wish to perform a role which requires an element of vocal production which they find difficult.
Some years past, her photograph appeared on the cover of Opera News, with a headline announcing her the greatest teacher of singing anywhere. That is a matter of opinion, of course, but it is an opinion which is shared by a great many people in professional music.
Mrs. Malas and her staff of seven teachers are working this season with 44 vocal students, making the Chautauqua program one of the largest in the nation. Among her students are top singers who have come to Chautauqua from Mexico, Australia, the Netherlands and other countries around the world.
''I think it's important for young singers to encounter different kinds of singers with different kinds of techniques and different amounts of information. We want the Chautauqua program to be a unique and wonderful learning experience for our students, and we don't want to be nothing more than a summer playground for Juilliard and Curtis,'' she said.
Earlier this season, students from the program performed the short opera ''Gianni Schicchi'' on the stage of the Amphitheater, accompanied by the Music School Festival Orchestra, providing them the opportunity of performing in character with an entire orchestra instead of only a piano accompanist or at best a small ensemble of instruments, which is the most that students at even as important a conservatory as the ones at which she regularly teaches can expect.
Also teaching in her program is her husband, internationally celebrated bass-baritone Spiro Malas, for many years a headliner at the Metropolitan Opera and in the major opera houses around the world, and known to be a preferred partner in song to Joan Sutherlund.
Then there's Peter Kazaras, a well-known performing tenor and artistic director of Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program. Are you noticing a trend here?
The largest class she has taught had 47 students, although she says now that she has decided that that was too many for the size of the program as it is now. Does that mean it might grow in the near future?
She responded that she is always investigating ways to change and make the program even more valuable, but there is nothing she can share with us at this point.
Another bit of information which produces only the small smile when asked about is the identity of the major stars who from time to time are seen in her company around the grounds.
I have had the experience of seeing a face I was certain I recognized at Chautauqua, and others have frequently told me they were pretty sure that this major star or that one was present during a season. Is that true?
She responds, ''It is true, but I would never reveal the name of a singer who sought my help. For one thing, they usually need some rest and relaxation, and being followed around by fans wanting autographs is not relaxing.''
Mrs. Malas mentions that she is genuinely impressed by the number of her students at Chautauqua who have gone on to successful careers as singers. She said that she and Institution Vice President Marty Merkeley have a tentative date to sit down with a list of all the students who have studied at Chautauqua, to identify who and how many have made it into the rare ranks of singers with established careers. She described the Chautauqua program as a ''gold mine for young voices.''
Pressed for a name or two, she quickly identifies tenor Paul Appleby, who was a winner of the national Metropolitan Opera auditions program and has recently made his professional debut at the Met, and baritone Elliot Madore, from Canada, who also was a Met finalist, and who had two principal roles at the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Festival this summer.
We discussed briefly that the handsome young Madore, who is in his early 20s, is one of a number of young baritones who has become a frequent feature on the website ''Barihunks,'' which has won much attention in the past few years, for pressuring opera singers not only to sing well, but to look the part of conquering heroes and dashing lovers, when they play those roles.
She laughs that she has never seen the site, but she has been told that a sizable number of her students have been featured there. The site is not really controversial, by the way, and simply shows photos of singers in costume for roles or in street clothes, and offers reviews from newspaper critics about their careers, but for a great many years opera was known for casting singers entirely for their ability to sing, while today, especially as new technology is showing audiences extreme close-ups of singers on stage, they are more and more often feeling pressure not only to sing well, but to look good.
Last February, I interviewed one of Mrs. Malas' students who has been at Chautauqua again this season to work with her, who was singing the role of Papageno in Mozart's ''The Magic Flute'' with the Canadian Opera Company. Adrian Cramer - who has also been featured on Barihunks - told me at that time that he believes that it is inexcusable for an opera company to cast an inferior singer in an important role, only because he or she looks good, but if two singers are relatively equal in ability, but one of them looks better, be believes it is completely valid to include appearance in deciding whom to cast.
I commented at the time that in the current economy, many opera companies are reducing their seasons or even going bankrupt, and while I agree with Cramer that vocal quality is by far the most important criteria, it made sense that the amount of imagination required to envision a 300-pound soprano doing the Dance of the Seven Veils or a 90-pound skinny guy pulling down the pillars of the temple in ''Samson and Delilah'' might be too much to ask for generations who have grown up with video games and 24/7 television programming.
Appearances aside, I wondered if Mrs. Malas believed that almost anyone could be taught to sing, or if there are people who just shouldn't make the attempt.
She chuckled and replied that successful singing is a complex blend of natural talent and learned technique. ''Good singing begins here,'' she said touching her head, ''and only involves this much later in the process,'' she said laying a hand on her throat. ''Some people can produce wonderful sounds, but simply cannot make an emotional and intellectual connection with the audience, and they rarely succeed as singers.''
She said she believes a singer with only 5 percent talent can possibly have a career, if they can hold and communicate with their listener, but she believes that a singer who has 95 percent talent and only 5 percent communication skills is unlikely to make it.
I asked the great teacher of singers if she had advice for parents of a young person in high school who had shown a talent for singing. She advised strongly that such a young person should not go directly from high school to a conservatory.
''Visit a number of liberal arts colleges which you think your son or daughter can probably get into, and ask to spend some time with the head of the vocal department,'' she advised. ''Not every teacher is right for every student. Learning is a two-way street, and no one can force anybody to learn. If the student has good interaction with the teacher, and he is willing to trust the teacher and make the effort to follow the advice he receives, it's a great way to start.
''If the teacher listens to the feedback from the student if something doesn't feel right, and the two make a joint decision either to try a different technique or to try to accomplish a technique which might seem difficult, that's a great relationship for learning,'' she continued.
Any additional advice for young singers? ''Listen to everyone you can, and try to sort out what is working for them and what is harming their success,'' she said. ''Learn everything you can. As I said, great singing begins in the head, not the throat. And, most of all, listen to yourself and try to be as objective as you can be. If you think that every sound you make is perfect and you feel threatened by anyone who doesn't think so, you leave yourself no room to grow.''
Can young people from our area study in her program? ''Absolutely,'' she answered. ''For example, a number of the students in our program meet some of their costs to live and study at Chautauqua by teaching students with less experience.''
Finally, I asked about the program at Chautauqua. Does she have a wish list to make it better?
''Of course,'' she laughs. ''Money. We're very lucky at Chautauqua to have some generous patrons who have made our present growth possible. But it's rare that anyone can make more, from the same amount of material. We have some plans for growth, and if and when we have the money to make those plans real, we will move ahead. I have a dream, for example, for the program to have enough money to have all my students on scholarship.''
I find myself fascinated by the subject of learning, not only in singing, but in every field. We hear pundits preach that opera is a dying field, for example, then we see opera companies in Toronto and in Seattle that are drawing vast numbers of enthusiastic fans. Chautauqua is difficult to reach for people who do not live nearby, yet gifted artists make that effort every year to get there and to live there, in order to learn that art form.
There seems to be life in the old art yet, if it isn't stifled by someone's lack of imagination.
Every few years, someone goes on a bender, preaching that education is failing and the only way to save it is to make some rigid plan which forces everyone to teach and to learn the same things in the same ways. Has Chautauqua been fertile soil for learning, or has teaching there required more struggle than trying to teach the students?
''For more than 30 years, Chautauqua has allowed me to do what I saw as necessary. They've supported me, encouraged me, and helped me, as much as they could.'' Now, that deserves a great deal of respect.