Carol Vaness and Rolando Villazon in a Merola master class in 1998. Photo by Lisa Kohler

Despite having seen her perform half a dozen times, I was still taken aback when Carol Vaness walked onstage at the Herbst Theater last night to begin a master class for the Merola Opera Program. She looks fantastic. I could go on about this but I won't because it's beside the point, which is that Vaness' class was incredibly illuminating.

I've found master classes to be an excellent way to learn about the art and craft of opera singing and what's really involved in making it work. Attending them has made me a better listener, giving me a greater appreciation for what a singer is doing (and how). There's an awful lot to absorb in a performance and it's been my experience that the more I know the more I appreciate what I'm seeing and hearing (or in some cases, why I don't). All of this, of course, is meant to encourage you to attend one if you never have, and the Merola season offers excellent opportunities given by teachers of the highest caliber.

Vaness, who has starred in most of the world's leading houses and now teaches voice at Indiana University, worked with five singers. What was really interesting about last night was what she did with the wide range presented to her- the performances ranged from one derailed from the start by nerves to one so polished and effective there seemed little if anything to be improved. And yet with each student, within a space of time ranging from 15 to 25 minutes, tremendous progress was achieved by all, even with the one who pretty much killed it from the get-go, who not only got even better, but was given some seriously good for thought regarding his choices of material and how it could limit his career.

Vaness not only brought her formidable experience to the exchanges, but also keen intelligence, genuine warmth, and an obvious interest in the success of her charges. I learned at least a half-dozen things to watch and listen for of which I was previously unaware and even more to think about regarding the choices a singer makes. Whether you're new to opera and want to learn more, or a seasoned enthusiast who relishes in the finer points and details, I doubt you'll walk away from these master classes unimpressed and without knowing more than you did when you walked through the door.

There are two more for this year's Merola participants on the schedule: Thursday, July 26, with Steven Blier and Tuesday, August 7, with Martin Katz. The singers are not announced beforehand. Both will be held at the Herbst Theater and begin at 7:00 PM (they last about 2 hours).