I have had so much to write about lately, but every night I find myself subdued by the upper respiratory infection that does not want to completely go away. So today I decide to write during the day when I am still energetic enough.
Yesterday I attended the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions . Any voice teacher who teaches aspiring professionals should see this competition in the house of the Metropolitan Opera. Not even the documentary film “The Audition”, which indeed goes behind the scenes of this very competition gives an adequate view of what is expected by those who are hiring young opera singers today.
The Metropolitan Opera is about history and pageantry and this event is no exception. The Grand Finals of this year’s competition was to be framed on one side by the official retirement from the Met Stage, of the legendary lyric mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade (Flicka to all of us who adore her) and on the other by current lyric mezzo/sensation, Joyce di Donato (the announced maîtresse de cérémonie), whose flight into New York was canceled due to bad weather. Not to be undone, the Met found the perfect substitute in Marilyn Horne, a legend in her own right, the other lyric mezzo/sensation who shares so much history and friendship with Flicka.
From Marilyn Horne’s entrance and her playful banter, it became totally clear what “The Audition” is about. It is about personality first and foremost. But personality may be defined in many ways. All of the nine finalists chosen acquitted themselves commendably, and if any American singer who understands the cultural weight of a Metropolitan Grand Final, then it should be a given that it takes incredible inner wherewithal to not make a fool of oneself in that situation. All of these singers show remarkable talent in certain aspects of Opera. They are not at the level of the legends, but it is obvious that with proper guidance they could become great operatic personalities.
After Marilyn Horne kept the audience captive with the easy grandeur that made her so irresistible in her many roles, she was not suddenly missed when she ceded the stage to the young competitors. As a voice teacher, I take notes on technical achievement and deficiencies, but as a singer I am interested in the ability to command an audience’s attention and these young singers did not disappoint. I was thoroughly entertained and sometimes genuinely moved during a nearly three-hour program that seemed to fly by like the wind that kept New Yorkers captive inside their homes this weekend.
The “Pageant” began with Korean soprano leggiero, Haeran Hong who delivered Manon’s Je suis encore tout étourdie with rare musical elegance and a voice of uncommon purity and beauty. A very attractive young woman, down to how she enters and left the stage, she was a total package. In the second half she delivered a flawless rendition of Susanna’s Deh vieni non tardar. Why she was not chosen as a winner is beyond me. The only thing I can think is that they thought her voice was too small. Yet her voice carried more clearly and consistently than any other. Granted, her repertoire did not require heavy accompaniment. That however was the only mystery of the day.
The Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani gave hints of a profound artistry in her hauntingly touching rendition of Adalgisa’s Sgombra è la sacra selva…Deh proteggimi! In both this aria and Carmen’s Séguédille in the second half, she appeared slightly uncomfortable and under-energized. This could have been a bad day for her. Nevertheless, the talent is substantial. She has a dark-hued voice that penetrated the orchestral texture easily. She simply did not shine on this particular day and consequently did not win. A fair adjudication.
Soprano Rena Harms showed a quick, lively energy in Nedda’s Stridono Lassú and later a heart-felt tenderness in Liu’s Tu che di gel sei cinta. Unfortunately in both pieces her voice did not ride easily through the thick orchestrations of Leoncavallo and Puccini. She had the most memorable dress of the evening. Still the voice lacked thrust and this validated the judges verdict. She did not win.
Tenor Nathaniel Peake will need to work on his lower and middle range, but when you deliver the best top notes heard on the Met stage this year, there is no problem winning the Met competition. It is important to understand that we are in a tenor-driven operatic culture. Mr. Peake delivered very good renditions of Macduff’s Ah la paterna mano and Vasco da Gama’s O paradis! His acting was slightly awkward and the musicality rather common, but the moment the first A-flat of Macduff’s recitative came out, it was clear why Mr. Peake was there. The audience rewarded him with hearty applause for both arias.
Soprano Lori Guilbeau showed an excellence sense of line in Elisabeth de Valois’ Toi qui sur le néant, but it was in Cleopatra’s (Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra) Give me Music that she claimed her prize. While the voice seemed too thin for Verdi’s Don Carlos, she released a balanced full lyric soprano in the Barber. Her English diction so perfectly intelligible made up for and accentuated the weaknesses in her French.
Korean mezzo-soprano Hyo Na Kim delivered a very impressively musical rendition of Dorabella’s Smanie Implaccabile but dropped the ball in Léonore’s (Donizetti’s La Favorite) O mon Fernand. Oddly enough, just two days before I was having a conversation with veteran mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler who commented that young singers should not sing this aria. Remembering Cindy’s rendition of this aria two days before, it was thoroughly evident that her assessment was correct. Ms. Kim will sing this aria and the role wonderfully someday, but this is not an aria to offer in a competition unless one has a giant voice. She could have been a winner had she chosen a different aria for these finals. But according to the documentary, the staff of the Metropolitan Opera who prepare these singers advise them on repertoire.
The personality of the day was soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen. Not only does she look like Renée Fleming, she also sound somewhat like her. Beyond those similarities though, she exhibited her own grand stage presence, first in a dramatically and musically faultless rendition of Elsa’s Einsam in trüben Tagen and then in an equally impressive interpretation of Fiordiligi’s Come Scoglio. This is a young singer who comes alive onstage. She received the longest applause from the capacity audience, and well-deserved. She is an artistic personality of a substantial kind. At 25 however, both pieces revealed her weaknesses. The voice is not fully developed enough to handle neither the low reaches of Elsa’s soliloquy nor the punishing lower passaggio of Fiordiligi’s tour-de-force aria. Still, there is no denying the immense talent of this young singer. Of course she won.
Elliott Madore is charming in the way 22-year old lyric baritones who win the Met auditions are. He has the courage to deliver muscular power in the high reaches of Oppenheimer’s Batter my heart from the recently premiered Doctor Atomic by John Adams. He also has the stagecraft to give a playful rendition of Figaro’s Largo al factotum. In the first aria, his high notes betray the sounds of an undeveloped tenor, yet the precariousness of the top Gs in the second aria is probably due to the beefing-up of the voice to make it sound more baritone-like. At 22, it is difficult to know where this voice will go, and we have to trust the Met staff who got to know him that he has revealed something remarkable during his days in New York. This brings up ageism in competitions such as this. Should a singer’s youth be a reason to pardon his lack of technical accomplishment? I say give him an encouragement prize and reward the young soprano Haeran Hong who did sing flawlessly and was at least equally charming. The commentary from the lady next to me was: “He is cute but I can’t hear him”.
Leah Crocetto soprano exhibited the highest decibel levels, yet she never pushed her voice. This singer, like the tenor, Nathaniel Peake, had voice. Ms. Crocetto needs to continue developing the lower half of her voice. The entire range could benefit from a bit more warmth. The lower sections of Ernani involami reveal that she still has work to do in the lower half of the voice. But the top more than makes up for this. She might have given Maestro Marco Armiliato a couple of heart attacks with the liberties she took with the high notes of Magda’s (Rondine) Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta. But the audience loved her for it. This is the kind of luxuriant top voice reminescent of Caballé. She also won and deservedly.
While the judges deliberated, Marilyn Horne introduced her friend and colleague Frederica von Stade who was showered with bravos (including from yours truly) before she sang one note. She delivered a spell-binding rendition of Charlotte’s Va! laisse couler mes larmes, which won her the Met auditions more than 40 years ago. Flicka’s voice is not the kind of voluptuous sound one thinks of when one thinks of opera. It is as if her entire gentle, tender, hearty humanity transferred with all of its energy through her voice. She has been one of my very favorite singers over the years and her performance here reminded me why.
I first became aware of this magnificent artist when I received a ticket from one of my teachers in college who could not attend a performance of Idomeneo one Saturday afternoon. She did not miss much as I practically fell asleep part-way through. Then the silvery voice of Idamante played by Flicka woke me from my boredom. The next monday morning I wrote to her agent expressing how moved I was. Two weeks later I received a card written in her hand thanking me for my letter. I wish I was one who collected such things. But alas, that card was lost during many moves over the years.
Well it was only three or four years later when she visited the University of Michigan and spoke with the voice students about her career and answered our many questions. The next day I spotted her driving to the music school to meet her pianist who teaches at the University and I followed her. When I with uncontrolled excitement introduced myself to her, she picked up on my accent and addressed me in the most perfect French. Over a ten minute conversation about this and that, I jokingly proposed marriage to her. She answered pleasantly that she was currently married but should it not work out, she would keep me in mind.
Opera singers have the power to enchant a young person for life. When I think of happenstance meetings with the likes of Flicka or Freni or Corelli or Cappuccilli and most notably for me, Mario Sereni, what stays with me is not their voices per se, but the person who comes through the voice. Even recently spending time with two of the Rossini tenors in the Met’s current production of Armida, the same quality is there. They are truthfully themselves. They are uniquely charming and in a strange way, curiously vulnerable.
I recently spoke to two students about the “IT” factor. What makes an audience want to hear a singer has first and foremost to do with presence. And that is a loaded word. The inner self shines through when the singer is proud of what he or she has to offer, so proud that s/he can not wait to deliver it to the audience like a carefully crafted and wrapped present. If the singer does not value his/her true self, then their skills, no matter how magnificent will be transmitted through a weak lens that does not magnify. All the winners were proud of their individual gifts and offered them up unabashedly. It is different from delusional self-aggrandizement. It is simply valuing who they are and what they have worked to accomplish.
To all these young artists I say, thank you for a wonderful afternoon. It was a well-spent $45 and that is a lot more than I can say for some professional performances I have paid for at top houses around the world.