The Power of Performance with Ellie Dehn

Welcome to the Power of Performance 

Hours of instruction and practice. Breath work, visualization exercises, and perfecting one’s technique. Why do gifted musicians put so much energy and focus into their craft? To perform!

At MacPhail Center for Music, accomplished faculty dip into their own, considerable stage experience to help students unlock their potential. The power of performance—a sacred, uplifting communion with an audience—isn’t easy to put into words. But we are asking our teaching artists to try.  

photo credit Catherine Pisaroni

Ellie Dehn | voice, musical theater, opera

“They say that those who can do, and those who can’t teach,” says Ellie Dehn, a classically trained opera singer from the Twin Cities area.

Ellie most certainly can: An accomplished soprano, she’s performed in title roles on the world’s most renowned opera stages: New York’s Metropolitan Opera, London’s Royal Opera House, and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (among many others).

And she disagrees with that saying.

“In the beginning, before I’d gone through the ups and downs of performing, there’s no way I would have known how to describe how to sing in the moment. To know things from a ‘sensation’ feel, rather than ‘textbook’ feel.”

Of course, as a teacher, she starts at the beginning. “One of the most important things is going in with good technique and setting up the fundamentals so that they can achieve their goals,” she say. “So yes, it’s practice, practice, practice! It takes time to form a habit to such a level that muscle memory takes over.”

Experience has taught her the importance of establishing this muscle memory. “On stage, you’re multi-tasking, with your eyes on the conductor, engaging your breath,” she says. “If I’m in a 4,000-seat house without a microphone, I need to be able to project, and that comes with practice.”

But there’s developing your skill…and then there’s using that skill to communicate with an audience. So, when Ellie instructs her MacPhail students, she also draws on her deep well of performance experience—including the part that came after the long years of developing proper technique and her prodigious muscular strength.

The final step is “adding your personal interpretation of the material.” Ellie’s goal in performance is to translate the text, to bring out the intentionality behind it.

“You’re not just singing notes,” she says. “You’re telling a story.”

In opera, that story is often emotional. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges facing opera singers in performance.

“What you’re singing may be beautiful, and it’s your job to convey that beauty—you never want to phone it in,” she says. “But emotion and tension can go right into your throat. It affects your larynx.”

Few people are immune to the physical effect that emotions can have on the body.

“I once sang at a funeral for someone I knew, and my voice did break a little,” Ellie says. “But in the opera world, we’re trained to sing through it. When singing professionally, you need to find a way to go right up to the line and not cross it. It’s a balance.”

And there are other aspects of performance that simply must be learned by experience. For example, when performing a title role in an opera, you must calibrate your singing to maintain stamina.

“At the start of each new opera, it often takes three or four performances to learn how to make it to the end without sounding fatigued,” she says. “You learn as you go that you can give more for a certain aria or duet and still end strong. Eventually, you find your groove.”

The rewards are beyond compare.

San Francisco Opera, Ellie Dehn as ‘Manon’

“At this point I have achieved my goals professionally,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a wonderful trajectory. I’ve already performed at all the places I’ve ever wanted to. I’ve fulfilled my wildest dreams. So…I now sing because I love it.”

In fact, Ellie’s love for the art deepens with each new opportunity.

“Every time you perform a role in an opera, you find different colors, different musical phrases to highlight, different ways to approach it,” she says. “You might perform it a hundred times for different audiences, with different casts, with different conductors who each have something different to say. All this forms a knowledge base for the next time you perform that opera. You can always go back and say, ‘I sang it this way with this other tenor.’ Everyone has something to bring to the table. That experience is something that can only be lived in the moment.”

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Visit her Ellie’s faculty page for more information.

Listen to songs that Shane has arranged and recorded horns (trumpet and trombone) on. (Or, catch him on Twitch)

Published on Date: Nov 22, 2022
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