Opera star brings talents, advice back to his alma mater

  • Opera starWilliam Joyner '84 has performed all over the world and in some of the most celebrated opera theaters. He returned to W&M last week to host a master class and to perform with the W&M Symphony Orchestra.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Opera star
  • Master classJoyner listens as Alexandra Witt '12 performs during a recent master class in Ewell Hall.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Master class
  • Master classJoyner motions for emphasis as Gavin Courtenay '12 performs a piece.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Master class

International opera star William Joyner ’84 sat at the edge of the stage in Ewell Recital Hall last week as seven voice students -- one by one -- performed in front of a small crowd. As he listened, Joyner jotted notes onto pages of sheet music, his body moving slightly -- almost unconsciously -- to the music, unable to help but convey the feelings involved in each piece.

When the performers ended their songs, Joyner asked them what their pieces were about: a vow of undying love, the acceptance of an abusive lover, a sad reflection on a past relationship.

“It’s sad, but it’s deliciously sad,” Joyner told one student, guiding her toward a better understanding of the text of her piece, which, in turn, resulted in a better, more nuanced performance.

That was just a bit of the advice that Joyner doled out during the master class he hosted at the College of William & Mary. The world-renowned tenor returned to his alma mater to host the class and perform with the William & Mary Symphony Orchestra.

“I'm thrilled to be able to come ‘home’ to the College,” said Joyner. “The Music Department has invited me a couple of times prior to this particular week, and it's always a treat to return and sing in the 'burg.”

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Voice Instructor Martha Connolly, who has worked at the College for 32 years and served as Joyner’s mentor, remembered Joyner as a talented and dedicated student.

“He was a wonderful singer,” she said. “He always had a great voice, but also he had a command of languages. He could do German and French and Italian, which is absolutely necessary for a classical singer. And he worked hard at his singing; he practiced.”

Following his time at William & Mary, Joyner went on to Catholic University and then Juilliard. Since then, he has performed all over the world and in some of the most celebrated opera theaters.

During Wednesday afternoon’s master class, member of the Performing Artist Faculty and Director of the Opera Workshop Ryan Fletcher introduced Joyner, telling the audience about his accomplishments since graduating from William & Mary.

“One of the real joys of teaching at the College is the opportunity to reconnect with students who have gone on and have not only made a success of their lives, but have really done extraordinarily well. That’s the case of our guest today,” he said. “We’re delighted today that he’s going to be working with some of our best singers just as he might have had the opportunity to be in a master class.”

The students who performed during the class were enrolled in Instructor of Voice, Lecturer in Music Mary Eason Fletcher’s Music 391 or 491 “Projects in Music” courses this semester. The seven advanced voice students will all be giving senior recitals this year.

During the master class, they performed a variety of pieces, including works written by Vincenzo Bellini, George Gershwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gabriel Faure and George Frederick Handel. Some of the pieces were performed in English, while others were sung in Italian, French or German. Each of the students performed two pieces. For each, they sang the piece through once fully and then were guided through a repeat performance by Joyner, who would stop to give them notes on things like the proper pronunciations of non-English words and correct moments to take a breath, and singing on vowels instead of consonants.

While some of the student performers are music majors, others are majoring in both music and another discipline or in another discipline altogether. Gavin Courtenay ‘12, for example, is a music major, whereas Leah Towarnicky ‘12 is a neuroscience major and Rachel Disselkamp ’12 is a government major.

Alexandra Witt ‘12, the first student to perform during the master class, is a double major in music and anthropology. She attended a boarding school for music as a teenager and then enrolled at Oberlin College, a music conservatory. After a year there, she decided to transfer.

“I’ve always enjoyed academics, but music has always taken priority, and here I’ve had the opportunity to still do tons of music all the time – I’m still a music major – but I was able to explore lots of other academic areas and really kind of look at that part of me,” she said.

During the master class, Witt performed two pieces from her upcoming senior recital, which will be held in the spring. Before her performance, she said that she looked forward to getting advice from Joyner.

“It’s really cool to have someone who’s been so successful come back,” she said.

Though she said performing during the master class was a little nerve-wracking, “it’s always good to have an opportunity to be in front of an audience and perform part of my recital just because it’s a lot of music, and it’s very different being in a practice room than being in front of everyone,” she said.

Joyner said that helping students was one of his main reasons for returning to the College.

“Not every W&M student is destined for a career as a performing artist, but an awful lot of kids here are singers, whether in the choir or chorus, in one of the a capella groups, in church, or just as a student taking private lessons,” he said. “I like to think that some of my experience can help broaden their abilities, in terms of both vocal technique and in communication and expression.  It's not just about the ‘how’ of singing (open throat, low larynx, breath support from the diaphragm), but also about the ‘why.’ ”

Joyner said that, though a cliché, he feels that youth are the future, especially when it comes to the arts.

“Ours is an entertainment culture rather than an arts culture, so if we want the arts to survive, we need to make sure that there will be people who can appreciate what artists do,” he said. “So even if few students aspire to professional performance careers, all who learn about the arts can appreciate them -- and the work that goes into being an artist.  Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" is a great pop song, but if today's 20-somethings know nothing of Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, John Williams, etc., then we are doomed.”

Joyner noted that another one of the reasons he decided to return to William & Mary was the investment that several of the people here had made in him, including the late long-time Choral Director Frank Lendrim and Connolly, “who were incredibly important to my development as a musician and as a man,” he said.

During the master class, Connolly was surprised with a plaque from the Department of Music in recognition of her influence on Joyner and other students like him.

Connolly said that Joyner’s visit was a “thrill.”

“It kind of makes me feel that I have done something for William & Mary students,” she said. “He’s a prime example of it, but we have others who have also gone on. But even if they’re just singing in a local chorus, we’ve done something to improve their lives.”

Connolly noted that the students were also delighted to have Joyner visit.

“It shows them that from William & Mary you can go on to a great career in singing,” she said. “But, I tell them the truth, which is that his voice was not any bigger than a voice we currently have. It was his study for opera that improved his voice to the point where it’s an operatic instrument. So, really, if you try hard enough, you can achieve this.”