Linda Di Fiore laughs when recalling a colleague on the University of North Texas College of Music faculty trying to explain to his voice students how they should dress for an audition.
“He said, ‘Dress like you’re going to a Di Fiore lesson,’” the award-winning mezzo-soprano and regents professor recalled.
Di Fiore will perform her final concert as a UNT music faculty member at 8 p.m. today. She’ll perform as a soloist with the UNT Symphony and Grand Chorus during Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. At 64, she plans to open a voice studio in Santa Barbara, Calif., and, if possible, others in Los Angeles and New York City.
Although other voice students may have scoffed at the Di Fiore studio dress code, the singer and professor said standards of dress serve as much of a function as the warm-up drills she put her students through.
“I want my students to be prepared for the vocation they’re so passionate about,” Di Fiore said. “And when you’re at an audition or on the stage in a recital, you have to present yourself professionally. When you’re dressed for an audition or a recital, it has an effect on your singing. Students need to know how that feels — how they’ll stand, how they’ll carry themselves.”
Everything that happens in the studio is preparation. Everything Di Fiore and her students do is equipping students for the expectations of professional opera companies, orchestras and college music programs. Di Fiore said students who pursue professional vocal careers have to be ready to go up against high standards and supreme talent.
“And that’s not a bad thing, because in our career, be it teaching in academia or singing on the opera stages or trying to have a career as a concertizer — it’s extremely competitive,” Di Fiore said. “So this notion that we’re all wonderful — that myth has to be dispelled. It’s a rarefied profession. I can’t think of a single profession that so many people want to do so badly, but there are so few opportunities. The more competitive you are, the better.”
Di Fiore’s students are singing professionally in operas across the country: Tenor Scott Scully is in his fifth season at the Metropolitan Opera; mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson debuted in the Tulsa Opera in its 2012-2013 season; mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm is an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera through this year; and another former Di Fiore student, tenor Casey Finnegan, spent last summer in the Merola Opera Program.
Di Fiore’s immaculate studio office is outfitted with an open grand piano, an uncluttered desk and lonely looking, empty bookshelves (“I’m in the process of moving my office to Santa Barbara,” she said.) The studio has been home to hard work and Sunday-best suits, skirts, neckties and heels since 1996, when she left her position teaching voice at the University of Florida to prepare UNT voice students for one of the most rigorous and unforgiving of music professions: the opera stage.
Di Fiore earned her music degrees in the Midwest, and was teaching voice at the University of Florida when she set her heart on a faculty position at UNT. She had sent a student to study with the late Virginia Bodkin. She was also familiar with the heft in Texas vocal performance programs through associates within the National Association of Teachers of Singing, where UNT voice professors held leadership posts.
“The NATS people called them the Texas mafia,” Di Fiore said. “I knew the reputation of the teaching. I wanted to join the ranks of a great teaching faculty. I wanted to work with people like [UNT voice faculty] Penny Johnstone, Laurel Miller and Harold Heiberg, David Sundquist and Cody Garner. I was the youngest person when I came — I was 45 years old. And now I’m the oldest person. I’ve come full circle. I wanted to take the program to the next level, and continue in that direction.”
Even knowing that Texas music teachers were the gold standard in academia and public school, Di Fiore said she was still impressed.
“The good news was that when I got here, the students were so well-prepared. And there are so many Texans singing all over the world,” Di Fiore said.
Di Fiore has preached the Texas gospel of good singing and support for classical music at master classes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Most often, she said, she’s greeted with nearly slack-jawed surprise.
“When I talk about the musical climate and musical scene in this state, people are completely blown away,” she said. “They think of Texas very differently. And when I say that right down the road we have two operas — the Dallas Opera and the Fort Worth Opera … and that the Texans put their money into the arts — there’s no danger of these companies closing — people are really surprised.”
She joined the ranks at UNT and set about selecting serious voice students to bring into her studio. Di Fiore grooms her students for the rigors of classical voice music. She requires her students to come to lessons prepared. That means a student must know the arias and art songs they are studying, from the meaning of the words they’ll sing to the diction of the German, Italian, French repertoire.
“They can’t just know the music they are singing, though,” she said. “That aria they’re singing, they need to be listening to as much of that composer’s work as possible. If they’re singing an opera, they need to know the entire opera.”
Once they walk into her studio, Di Fiore helps students drill down to their weaknesses. And if a singer has tension in the tongue or the jaw, Di Fiore leads them through warm-up exercises designed to address those shortcomings. And if there’s a law in Di Fiore’s studio, it’s that every singer needs more drills in proper voice support — from breath control to articulation.
“My basic philosophy is that I empower students by the building of a healthy technique and through that comes their ability to express what they have to say on stage,” she said. “If on stage they’re worried about being able to hit that high note, or whether or not they can get through that phrase, they can’t be an artist.”
Di Fiore said she doesn’t focus on the alchemy that is art — that moment when a performer matches the emotion, color and story of the music with a clean technique and inspiration. She focuses on getting her students to the stage when technical abilities are nearly a reflex. She coaches them to be prepared and present so that when the curtain goes up, the singer can be open for the human story in the notes.
Di Fiore said she immerses herself in classical music. She listens to it in the car and at home. And because singers are their instrument, she is careful with her diet — lots of water and “no junk, not a lot of processed stuff” — and diligent about exercise.
“If my students are going to spend any time in the gym over there, they’re going to see me there too,” she said. “You have to take care of yourself if you want to do this work. You have to eat, breathe, sleep and live this stuff if you want to have a career.”
And if singers seem neurotic about avoiding the flu season and the bedeviling North Texas pollens, it’s because both beat up the voice.
Di Fiore hopes to keep singing as long as she can. She still feels strong and passionate about music.
“I’m not going to stop teaching,” she said. “It’s something I feel I was born to do, and something which feeds my soul. And there’s nothing like going to my students’ recitals and seeing everything they bring to the table. It just pours out of them.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.