Halfway through the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra's rehearsal Tuesday afternoon, conductor John Nardolillo finds a perfect way to demonstrate how Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs should be played.
"If you want to know what to do and how it should sound, just listen to her voice," he says, referring to soloist Cynthia Lawrence. "It's a beautiful voice."
And Lawrence came here to instruct singers. The celebrated soprano, who shared a stage with Luciano Pavarotti more than 70 times, is settling in to her new position as endowed chair in music (voice) at UK.
She succeeds another celebrated diva, Gail Robinson, who died last fall after a decades-long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
"I actually never met her," Lawrence says. But working as a guest artist with students last fall, she got to know "the legend, and everybody just loves her."
Little did she know she might be Robinson's successor in a chair that was seen as a huge step forward for UK's opera program when it was created in 1999.
When she found that the position was open, Lawrence thought, "Ah, I love the people here, I had a great time, why don't I apply?"
Her letters of recommendation included one from tenor Plácido Domingo.
"Apparently that one went straight to the provost," Lawrence says with a laugh.
So, here she is in Lexington, with a studio of 16 students plus some private pupils, her husband and two daughters getting into the swing of Lexington life, and a big concert Friday night with the UK Symphony.
She says the decision to do The Four Last Songs was an almost unspoken agreement between her and Nardolillo.
"They're a journey," Lawrence says. "The poetry speaks of the beginnings and the middle and the autumn and the final days of, it says 'we.' I believe it is a couple sitting on the brink of death and they're looking back on their life.
"I want them played at my funeral, when I pass away, because I think they are so sublimely written."
Not that Lawrence thinks she is anywhere close to that point in her life or career (she invokes the Monty Python line, "I'm not dead yet," a couple times Tuesday). She says UK wants her to continue performing, which she will do here and elsewhere this year, and in performing, there are chances to teach. Several students sat in on her Last Songs practice, watching Lawrence employ her physical and studied technique.
"I really enjoy passing on what I've learned," Lawrence says. "There are no secrets, no magic bullet. It's a lot of hard work, and if I can insist the students I work with get closer to what they can do best, that's the ultimate goal, whether it's Broadway, pop or opera."