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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Judging the Judges in Opera Competitions

This is part two of my commentary on vocal competitions for young opera singers. Part one can be found immediately below this post.

Once the singing is finished it’s time for the judges to decide who has won, and who gets thrown back into the pot for another try next year.

As I mentioned earlier, my experience with this has been as an audience member only, so I can only imagine what singers must go through on stage and afterward, as they await the decision that could well change their careers. I’ve sat through several dozen competitions in all, including the Met Regionals and the annual one offered by the DLOG. The process seems basically the same regardless of the organization running the show. Singers perform a couple of arias—usually the first of their own choosing and the second picked for them by the judges from a previously submitted list—and then toddle off backstage to await a decision several hours hence.

Oftentimes the judges are opera directors from various U.S. companies. Here in Denver we’ve had folks from St. Louis, Central City, Santa Fe and San Jose, just to name the few that come immediately to mind. We’ve also had a few “festival” directors, including people from Ravinia and Wolf Trap. And then there are the ex-singers, many of whom were not familiar to me, either because they’ve had careers that were focused overseas or had never been widely recorded—or both. The most famous judge in any of the competitions I’ve attended was at last year’s Met Regionals, when baritone Sherrill Milnes graced us with his presence. He was cordial to the audience, kind to the competitors, and an all-round pleasure to have in the auditorium.

One of the more interesting things for audience members to do at a voice competition is match wits with the judges. We enjoy rating the singers and then comparing our results to those announced at the end of the contest. Having listened to opera for decades, my wife and I like to think of ourselves as relatively well-versed as to what constitutes good singing. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is off-pitch, or has poor breath control, or is in over his or her head in matching the voice with the repertoire.

But because we’ve never actually spoken to any judges, we don’t really understand the criteria employed to reach a decision. Oftentimes we’ve been spot-on (as the Brits say) in picking the winner and even the top half-dozen finishers in proper order. But other times our number one choice hasn’t even finished in the money, which has caused us to look at each other in bewilderment and ask (to quote Eric Cartman), “What the fudge?” or words to that effect. I recall one DLOG winner that was such an unpopular choice with the audience—or rather, the audience’s clear favorite had NOT been chosen as winner—that the judges were roundly booed for their selection. I’m sure the first-place singer must have felt more than a bit perturbed by that reaction.

I’m not suggesting that the audience is always right, either. Showy ornamentation or a favorite aria can garner much applause, whether the singer’s performance deserved it or not. And unless the field includes one singer who is head and shoulders above the rest—past examples in Denver have included Robert Garner, Helena Biktasheva, Yalun Zhang and Charles Taylor—it can be pretty much of a crapshoot to determine who the “rightful” winner should be.

Another factor to consider, I suppose, is the “on any given day” defense. On any given day, a singer can have a bad performance because of personal problems or illness. The Mile High City’s aridity must play havoc with singers’ throats, even for those who have lived here for years and are acclimated to it.

This is one topic on which comments from actual singers would be especially welcome. The standard speech contestants and audiences alike hear publicly from judges in the post-judging, pre-announcement stage of a competition goes something like: “We’re thrilled with the level of competition this year and, truly, you’re all winners for having competed.”

Everyone knows that this is a load of horse manure, but the panel seems obligated to roll out that old chestnut nonetheless. What I’d really like to know is what the judges say privately to the winners and losers. Do they offer suggestions on how to do better next time around? Do they make recommendations on repertoire choices? Do they say, “You know, you’ve got a perfect voice for dinner theater?” Until we learn more, I guess we’ll just have to roll with the punches and occasionally be dumbfounded by a judge’s selection. The 2006 Met Regionals take place in Denver at the end of February. I’m keeping my fingers crossed to NEVER have to hear “No Word from Tom” ever again, but—not bloody likely!

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