The anniversaries of composer’s deaths usually merit a concert or two. Rarely so for musicians. On July 18 2007, tenor Jerry Hadley died after falling into a coma from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 55. (NPR remembrance with lots of audio is here.)
A few months earlier, in what was likely a tryout for the faculty, and what might have been a charitable attempt to ease his financial stresses, Hadley appeared at my university for a week of master classes. He set up shop in the uncomfortable opera classrooms, where he held full-day classes every day. It was toward the end of term – everyone had gotten their recitals and auditions out of the way by then, and the mood in the room was relaxed. Masterclasses are often boring displays used by the “masters” to boost their image, sometimes at the expense of the nicely-dressed students looking for their approval.
The first singer I saw him work with was a friend of mine, an Irish beauty with a tendency to squawk her high notes. She sang through “Adieu, notre petite table,” with a fearful look in her eyes as she awkwardly approached and inevitably sang an unpleasant sound on “la beauté.” Hadley gave a few words of encouragement, then asked about the song. Manon sings it after she decides to leave the love of her life, despairing to lose him and knowing it will crush him, but unable to resist her hunger for more.
Hadley asked my friend to speak the words in English (which singers are rarely able to do), then put the song into her own words. “Have you ever done something crappy to someone you love?” He asked her. She quietly said yes. Everyone in the room seemed to contemplate their own transgressions.
He asked her to sing the aria to that person and gave her a little table to use as a prop and take her out of masterclass stiffness. She sang again, this time making music, with more emotion in every note, even if she chickened out a bit and still let out a squawk. But it didn’t matter this time, we were all choked up. “That’s the best Manon I’ve ever heard in any opera house in the world,” Hadley told her. She left the room to dry her eyes.
I went to as many of his master classes as I could, though after that first class I felt more held back by the intensity of what he had to say than by anything else. It is terrifying to think that technical problems can be overcome if we are willing to pour our souls into the music’s meaning. Hadley knew that it deserves nothing less.
Once, after teaching a tenor who suffered from severe body tension (Hadley spent most of the class pressing his hand on the tenor’s chest), he had him sit down and gave us a few words. I’m realizing that I wrote more about this at the time, but here is the most important part of what I remember, which I repeat and even sing to myself from time to time:
“Music is a gift from God, and you are worthy of that gift, do you hear me? You are worthy of that gift. And no one can take it away from you, because it’s a gift from God. Therefore, you are invincible.”
The man who spoke those words killed himself two months later.