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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Opera Competitions

Over the past week I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of blogs written by young opera singers, all of whom seem to spend their time either preparing for, participating in or recuperating from auditions. I discovered most of these blogs through a link known as RingSurf, of which I am now a proud member. You can gain access to these delightful sites by clicking on the “next five” or “previous five” links at the very top of this page.

As I was never an opera singer—a short stint with the Cleveland Orchestra chorus under Margaret Hilliard and a last-minute-replacement as bass soloist in Minneapolis for the Mozart Requiem have been my only non-school stage appearances—I can only imagine the angst that pervades a young performer’s life as he or she trudges from one audition to the next, never quite knowing what it is that the representative is seeking, what his or her hiring criteria might be, or exactly why they were ultimately accepted or rejected.

My only live exposure to this process is as an audience member during opera competitions. My wife and I have attended the Met Regionals in Denver pretty much every year since 1991, as well as the annual Denver Lyric Opera Guild competitions during that same time period. We’ve missed one or two of each over the past 13-plus years, usually because we forgot to mark the dates on our calendar.

Because I’ve only seen the results of training (the auditions themselves), I’m obviously a poor judge of the methods employed. I gleaned a certain insight into this world by reading the recently published book, “Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers.” Author William Murray, himself a former opera performer-turned-journalist, was granted unprecedented access to the Young Singers Program at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Mr. Murray chronicles a year in the lives of a half-dozen singers who spend their time taking private lessons, preparing themselves as “covers” for the various productions Lyric has planned for that season, learning other roles that might help them further their careers, auditioning for opera directors who make the trek to Chicago to stock their own companies for upcoming seasons, and studying with the Lyric’s in-house experts on vocal technique, stage movement, and other elements essential to mastering the opera singer’s craft.

Because my wife grew up in Chicago and her folks still live there, we visit that city several times each year. One of our highlights involves attending the Grant Park Music Festival, a series of free performances throughout July and August that take place in the band shell of the downtown park that’s mostly known for Buckingham Fountain. An opera program is invariably included among the many performances scheduled over the ten weeks of the festival and, throughout the years, we've seen a concert version of “Damnation of Faust” by Berlioz and a semi-staged production of Strauss’ “Fledermaus” (to name two that came immediately to mind) that, after reading “Fortissimo” I now realize involved singers from the Lyric’s “farm system.”

But I digress …

Since 1991 we’ve seen our fair share of “interesting” singers in local competitions. Because Denver is relatively isolated from the artistic hustle and bustle of either coast, it’s a fairly insular group of performers that grace the “bimah” (that’s what we call it in the synagogue, but I have no idea by what name it’s known among Christians) of a local Presbyterian church every February for the Met Regionals, or the stage at the Lamont School of Music a month later for DLOG. In more than a few cases we’ve seen singers “grow up” before our very eyes, becoming transformed over several years from can-barely-project-beyond-the-footlights timidity to full-blown artistic confidence, with a voice to match.

One such example is Daniel Fosha, a lyric tenor who, a few years ago, we referred to as a table, a table from the phrase in a “Manon” aria that he was fond of singing. After three straight years of failing to make the cut with the DLOG, he finally changed his repertoire—or as I now realize, his voice evidently matured sufficiently—so that he could carry off more substantial arias. The last time we heard him sing, he wowed the audience with a rendition of Lensky’s aria from “Eugene Onegin” that could have easily been part of a fully staged production. We wish him well in all future endeavors.

The Metropolitan Opera organizes regional competitions, culminating in the finals that take place with full orchestra accompaniment on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York. Here in the intermountain West, participants from Colorado and Wyoming come to Denver for a full Saturday of performances, while folks in Utah gather on the same day in similar fashion in Salt Lake City. One week later, the Utah finalists come to Denver and duke it out with whoever survived the cut on our side of the Rockies. A field of 15-20 singers is reduced to seven or eight and, combined with the half-dozen or so Utahns, end up with one person standing—or rather, headed for the Big Apple.

Denver Lyric starts with a much larger contingent, oftentimes 45-50 singers stretched out over a dozen hours on a Friday. That number is reduced by well more than half for the following day’s further winnowing, and a week later 10-12 singers spend their Saturday night vying for cash prizes that range from a couple hundred dollars at the low end of the totem pole to something like $1500 for first place.

Both competitions use similar formats. Each singer arrives armed with five arias. The first selection is of the singer’s choice, while the judges (usually three in number) pick a second song from the prepared list. Musical accompaniment is provided by a piano at center stage. Perhaps a third of the singers bring their own accompanist, while the rest take advantage of the “house” pianist. After all the singers have performed, the judges retire to some inner sanctum and spring forth a while later with their decisions.

My wife and I are occasionally merciless in our assessment of the various performances we hear and see. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit the sort of comments we trade between ourselves regarding the poorer examples of singing we hear. Some of that refers to the lack of breath control, the missed notes, the occasional inappropriateness of various outfits (especially among the women), or the selection of music. I realize that everyone who ends up on that stage has put in countless hours of work, spent tons of money they struggled in menial jobs to earn to afford voice lessons and all the rest, etc., etc. But it’s clear to us that some of these folks should not be singing opera. One woman persisted year after year with a lovely voice that would have served her well in operetta or dinner theater. Oftentimes her personal choice for a first selection was “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s “Candide.” I’m sorry—that’s NOT opera, at least not in this setting. When some other soprano is competing with Puccini’s “Un bel di,” one should get a clue.

Our general antipathy for German opera (totally personal and probably irrational, but there it is) makes us cringe whenever a competitor selects (or has a judge select for him/her) something by Richard Strauss, or Wagner, or even something from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.” Any soprano who starts out with “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” is automatically off our list—and the same is true with songs by Menotti (although a selection from “Amahl” would be nice, except no one ever does that), or that horrible baritone aria from “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

The standard fare, given the fact that we’re talking about young singers, is lighter material by Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and later nineteenth-century French composers. We hear a lot of “Romeo & Juliet” for tenors and sopranos, “Cenerentola” for mezzos, and “Magic Flute,” “Nozze,” “Don Giovanni” and “Carmen” from pretty much everyone. Massenet is surprisingly well represented (“Werther,” “Manon” and even “Thais”), but I read somewhere a few years ago that his music is especially suited to younger singers, so I suppose that makes sense.

Our favorites, especially when done well (but even a less-than-decent performance can be ameliorated in our minds by a well-composed aria) include the Silver Aria from “Ballad of Baby Doe,” “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka,” “Dupuis du jour” from Charpentier’s “Louise,” selections from “Eugene Onegin,” or anything by Bellini and Verdi. Back in the early to mid-1990s we rarely heard anything by Verdi in these competitions—the occasional soprano aria from “Traviata” was the exception—but that’s changed over the past few years. Basses are singing the prologue aria from “Simon Boccanegra” (which I LOVE). Mezzos are singing Ulrike’s aria from “Un Ballo.” Tenors are tackling the two famous arias from “Rigoletto,” and even occasionally “Celeste Aida” from, well, you know …

It’s equally nice to hear something off the beaten path. Because I have collected and listened to so many lesser-known operas, I’m always impressed by singers who take the chance of making an unusual choice. What stands out, you may ask? There’s Cardinal Brogni’s first-act aria from “La Juive,” the sleepwalking scene from “Macbeth” as well as Banquo’s aria, the soprano aria from “Lucia” that opens the second act, plus the bass aria that closes the first act (I’m oftentimes terrible with aria names), plus the prologue from “Pagliacci.”

One of these days I’d love to hear some singer tackle the big tenor aria from Gounod’s “Sapho,” or the baritone’s first-act drinking song from Thomas’ “Hamlet,” or Alice’s second-act aria from “Robert le Diable.” Fat chance on the latter, I’m sure. But speaking of Meyerbeer, I’ve actually heard three separate mezzos perform the Page’s aria from “Huguenots,” so that’s nice.

When I started writing this post I’d planned to add commentary on competition judging—from the point of view of the audience, otherwise known as “They gave THAT person the top prize?” But this thing has run on long enough, so I’ll save the rest for another day.

Hi, Paul! Just found your blog through the Opera Blogs Ring Surf group, which I used to be #11. (When I changed my blog url, the link was picked up by someone who took my old blog name. Technology = help!)

I'm a singer-mom coming back into the "fray" after unmentionable # of years (that puts me outside alot of competitions) but that doesn't seem to deter me. I just love to sing on stage as a character, am an incurable language geek, and apparently according to my new teacher I have "a very nice instrument". But enough with the introductions, right?!

I read this post with *extreme* interest and found your observations both honest and astute! I browsed a bit and decided I really like your blog and I'll be reading back and commenting whenever I can.

Thanks for the good posts.
Keep on bloggin'!
Cheers, A.
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