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Opera star turned teacher celebrates a long life in song

Person of the Week: Ellen Faull
by: JOSEPH GALLIVAN, Star soprano and opera instructor Ellen Faull marked her 88th birthday in October with a serenade from her students.

For her birthday in October, the students of celebrated voice coach Ellen Faull gathered at downtown's Old Church for a concert. It was a fairly typical lunchtime freebie audience: residents from a senior living center, special-needs kids, office workers with sack lunches, and the 14 singers and assorted family members.

It was a far cry, socially, from the life which 88-year-old Faull (pronounced fall) lived for most of her career. She was a world-class soprano who sang for many great conductors and was a regular with the New York City Opera.

As a teacher she taught at the Manhattan School of Music, chaired the Juilliard School's voice department until 1990, and coached many opera stars, including Michaela Gurevich, Victor Benedetti and Dawn Upshaw.

Faull and her psychiatrist husband, Maurice Gordon (who died in 1987), had an apartment in the swanky El Dorado at 300 Central Park West. She had her teaching studio there, he had his consulting room, and patients and students shared a waiting room.

They were an 'it' couple, mixing with artists and writers in an era when opera was a black-tie affair and kids fresh off the train (including Faull, when she first moved from Philadelphia) could find a $5 a month apartment in Greenwich Village.

However, the passion and skill with which the students sang at the Old Church was timeless. Faull appeared delighted with the show, a mixture of art song, arias and American standards. The final number was a takeoff on 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' in which they ran through all her silliest exercises, from lip trills and 'yangs' to lying on their backs singing.

'She's a trip, she's a character,' says Arielle Rosenberg, 23, who sang 'Joy' by Ricky Ian Gordon at the party.

Rosenberg is considering whether to get a master's degree to further her singing career as a lyric soprano, which is where Faull has had most success. She notes that Faull 'has enough connections still that she can advocate really well for a singer.'

One thing Faull teaches is that singers can't project unless they are relaxed. Hence the lesson where one lies on one's back, knees bent and head supported, to get connected to their breath. But there's more to an Ellen Faull lesson than lying down in her Camas, Wash., home. She teaches students how to channel their emotions into song.

'You have to engage,' Faull said recently in her home overlooking Lacamas Lake. 'You can make pretty sounds, but that's not enough.'

The Philadelphia (Opera) story

Faull had her share of breaks and has been paying it forward for years. Her blue-collar Pittsburgh family was hit hard by the Great Depression - at one point she and her siblings went door-to-door selling bread that her mother baked.

She always sang, however, and when she was a teenager her teacher introduced her to one Eugene Ormandy, who let her use his private box for all Philadelphia Orchestra concerts.

The first opera she saw was 'Don Giovanni,' from a seat with an obstructed view. 'I watched it like this,' she says, bobbing and weaving. Faull has a ready laugh and a twinkle in her eye.

'Ezio Pinza was the don,' she says, still impressed. In fact, she has near-perfect recall not just of names, characters and titles, but of the emotional states she assumed during work.

She explains how playing Cio-Cio-San in 'Madama Butterfly' left her emotionally drained because she put too much feeling into it. She teaches students to access emotion without going so far into character that they wreck themselves.

The CD 'Ellen Faull: An American Soprano' (VAI Audio) shows two things. She always valued clarity of tone, and she was a hottie in her day.

Singer-teacher combo is rare

Brian Kellow, the features editor at Opera News, says that the naturalness of Dawn Upshaw's tone cemented Faull's reputation as a teacher.

'If Ellen were singing today she would be a big, big star,' Kellow says. 'She had a really, really fine voice. It was no-frills, no-nonsense out-there soprano - clean, honest unfussy singing.' He adds that while she is known for singing Mozart, her contemporary work was strong too in such operas as 'Lizzie Borden' and 'Carry Nation.'

Portland Opera General Director Christopher Mattaliano points out that it's very rare for someone to be a great opera singer and a great teacher, and recalls Faull's 'great strength and presence' at the Juilliard School.

'She was something to be reckoned with, in a good sense,' he says. 'Because it's the 'Holy Shrine of the Juilliard' people are reluctant to deal with real problems, but she was always clear and communicative, a good problem-solver and very frank.' He adds, 'I adore her, and she's eternally young.'

After a long career in opera, Sidney Johnson now is a voice teacher and a worship pastor at a church in Milwaukie. He has been a student of Faull's for 35 years.

'Now I only go in for my 50,000-mile checkup,' says the 61-year-old with a laugh. After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at age 22, he discovered Faull. 'In New York whenever I heard a singer whose tone I liked I would ask them who their teacher was, and I kept hearing, 'Ellen Faull.' '

Diction is key

Faull's husband always kept a scrapbook of her performing years, but she regrets that she never wrote down what she learned from studying with her voice teacher Joseph Regneas, three times a week for 10 years. Her technique is a mix of his and her own.

'I have very definite sounds I want to hear in people, clear sounds. If you don't have good diction it means you're not singing so well.' She adds with a chuckle, 'Although Joan Sutherland never had good diction … Mmwmmwaama … and she was quite a singer.'

Faull moved to Washington in 1990 to be near daughter Judith. 'I like it here, it's like being on vacation with my furniture.'

Faull is still in touch with many opera people around the world. 'I love the Internet,' she says. She even taught her accompanist and handyman Michael Barnes how to use his computer.

One more thing: Faull is a gerontologist's dream.

Portland Opera supporter Janine Cowles is a big fan of Faull, and a friend.

'She's a fabulous role model for staying alert and living an active life,' Cowles says.

'She will never kid a student, she's always very forthright.' Cowles remembers bursting to tell her of the Chilean soprano she had heard at the Met conducted by Placido Domingo. Faull replied that Veronica Villaroel was one of hers.