Kashudo (歌手道): Winning International Voice Competitions

I just came from watching one of my students in an international voice competition and without any self-agrandisement (none really since I was not singing), she should have won this competition hands down. Several of the competitors approached me, knowing that I was her teacher, and expressed regret that she was not a finalist. She was dropped at the semis. A very nice lady, apologetically approached us at the final party and said that my student was the singer that moved her most profoundly and that she found her voice unusually beautiful. So what was the problem?

As her teacher, I was disappointed that she did not get into the finals, because she was by far the best singer there in terms of technique, musicality and soul. Yet I was not surprised that she was dropped in the finals. She did make a small error. After singing a flawless pianissimo crescendo high B in Depuis le jour, coming down to the G below, she lost control of her breath and cracked the G a little. After so many sustained high notes (what seems like a thousand high As in succession and a bunch of perfectly controlled pianissimo and forte Gs) there was no question that this was an accidental error. But this is a French competition and my student is American.
That makes her a foreigner. That is reality number one:

In an international competition, the cards are stacked in favor of the host country

My student was a semi finalist in both the mélodies and opera categories. In that round as in the elimination round, each singer sings one song. However, as opposed to the four minute limit for the first round, the singer has six minutes for the second round and there was no specifics as to whether one can sing one song or two or three. When I asked one of the official helpers of the competition, he said that the jury hears one song in the semi-final round. However after she sang a stunning C’est l’extase langoureuse (Debussy), I had a feeling it was not enough. We had prepared a second piece, Fleur jetée (Fauré) but they did not ask for it. Two contestants later, a young bass presented the short cycle by Poulenc, Le bestiaire and there was no objection. In effect, if she had announced both songs totalling less than six minutes, she might have made the effect necessary to get into the finals. The singers that made it through all sang longer pieces. They were all French or French Canadian. There is a French-Quebec prize in the competition offered by one of the judges who is the director of a French Canadian Opera organization.

Reality number two:

Know the politics of the situation

The French-Quebec prize was given to a young French coloratura. The prize is a series of concerts sponsored by the Quebec organization directed by said judge. The same coloratura was indubitably edged out in the mélodies category by a fanstastically gifted French baritone who received well-deserved bravos for his performance. However the two prizes for that category (1st and 2nd) where changed to two first prizes, and the soprano was announced first. The same soprano was also a finalist in the opera category and was given first place in the female category although a Russian coloratura with a near flawless technique edged her out, in my opinion. It might have appeared strange if she had also won the overall grand prize. That honor went to a French-Chinese soprano. The prize was announced by the mayor of the town who reminded the audience that this soprano had sung the soprano lead in The Pearl Fischers two years before in the town where the competition takes place.

Now none of this makes the competition unwinable. In fact an American soprano that I currently teach won the competition the year before (the opera category, of course and she won it before she started working with me). But one must know how to win these things. Reality three:

International Competitions are won in the semi-final round

Remember my student’s experience in the semi-final round of the mélodies catergory? She sang beautifully, but her song was not long enough and so by comparison it seemed as if she sang an easier piece even though it was not an easier piece compared to the others. It was just shorter and more subdued in style. No excuses! One should get informed. I was itching to have her change her piece, but she was already backstage and then she sang and I felt she did well enough to advance (particularly after hearing everyone else). But she did not advance and they post the results right after. This was actually helpful for us, because this gave me time to make a correction in the semi-final round of the opera. I took away her more subdued Dove Sono and replaced it with Depuis le jour. Her stunning performance of that piece should have advanced her if not for the aforementioned cracked G. Lesson: Take no prisoners. Have a competition piece in every round. Other than the most important competitions where the judges really know singing, a beautiful artistic piece that does not have vocal fireworks (either big and loud or high and fast) is not going to get you past the second round.
A competition is about not giving the opponent a way in. To that effect, I had a conversation with the young Russian coloratura I thought had a near flawless technique. She did not win any prize and I thought of those they chose as finalists she was vocally the healthiest and most solid. Perfect intonation, amazing control in the high register, beautiful high Es and a warm middle range. Totally old school. I approached her to say that I was sorry she did not win. She looked at me with the strongest diva attitude and said in a very strong, Russian accent with as much hubris as with charm: “Do you see a funeral here?” I looked perplexed and then she said: “This is my 22nd competition in the last four years. I did not win anything in the last four, but at every new competition I improve something. Sometimes you are what they look for and sometimes not. All in all, I was very happy with my performances. My teacher would be happy.” So I said to her that I was certain that she would have a great career and I believe she will. This girl feels that she is born to be a great singer and that feeling of entitlement is crucial in the success of any singer (to that effect, I recommend the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, an indispensible read for anyone who wishes to be successful).
I believe that the Russian coloratura in question will become an international sensation. She is a fearless performer and a very careful technician: an indispensible paradox for a singer. She knows how to win from what I saw of her three opera rounds, but even more important she knows how to take defeat and see the positive in it.
My student came out of this competition (our second together) a much stronger competitor than before. So I agreed that she should do another competition right away. A part of becoming a viable opera singer is to face the fire often. Audition and do competitions often and plan to win. Win or lose, you do end up winning if you can see what you take home with you after the experience. If not the prize, take home the confidence that you wowed a lot of people. I don’t think my student will forget the audience member who sought her out and spoke for five minutes about how deeply she was moved by that Depuis le jour! That was for me as an audience member one of those performances that I won’t forget. I am teaching a pretty gifted singer. But as this competition shows, singing is only a part of winning a competition. When you think of competition, think of olympic gymnasts and figure skaters. You must have flawless technique, vehicles (routines, songs for us) that feature your greatest strengths and a competitive spirit that says I need to sing this piece now to force the hand of the other competitors. Most of all you need the confidence of a young Russian coloratura who says when she is being pitied: “Do you see a funeral here!” And just like her teacher of her, I am proud of my student. Next competition, she sings to win. It is not an unreasonable expectation. She proved she can win. Now to make it a reality!
© 09/02/2009

PS The Koreans and the Chinese travel in teams to international competitions. I think it is a very wonderful support system when the participants like each other. Since I teach a bunch of sweet people, I recommend that we plan a series of international competitions as a team.

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