#TCH16: 16th Tchaikovsky Competition Still the Best

Four years ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the Tchaikovsky Competition as the last truly fair competition on Earth. Other competitions do good work in helping singers that are already chosen in launching a career in difficult times. I missed Cardiff this year because I was in the process of moving and broadcast was restricted to the UK. Cardiff needs to get with Medici TV. Period!

First, Medici was the first to comment on the fact that they were not ready for this level of traffic. Some problems with replays were frustrating but over all an excellent job considering they had 6 categories this time.

I did not have time to follow the instrumental competitions in depth, but in the Voice competition, the jury made up of the regular casting agents was complemented by some truly legendary figures of singing including Feruccio Furlanetto, Matti Salminen, Neil Shicoff and the unsurpassed Edita Gruberova. I believe these singers made the difference in judging a group of 46 singers that were less imposing than those of the previous edition by and large. However, the finalists were mostly at par with those of 2015 and gave excellent performances in true competitive spirit. I particularly enjoyed the moment when Gihun Kim encouraged his rival, Alexandros Stavrakakis between arias. Those two gave us a friendly rivalry equal to the Terfel/Hvorostovsky battle at Cardiff.

The Jury made bold choices in both male and female categories. The choice of Maria Barakova, the 21 year old mezzo over the more exacting coloratura soprano Aigu Khismatullina parallels the one of Alexandros Stavrakakis over Gihun Kim. In short, emotional commitment over technical exactness! But it’s not so black and white. I will discuss these wonderfully talented young finalists with encouragement and some cautionary advice. #TCH16 did a great job in making us aware of these potential stars of tomorrow but it will take the unsung heroes ( the teachers who took them this far) to make sure that the coming opportunities do not destroy these young talents before they fully mature.

I find that over the past 10 years, my job has become as much about career guidance as vocal/music pedagogy. These young finalists need both in a world more geared toward a “flash in the pan” than about career development for longevity. I went to the opera last night and heard/saw some interesting “young” talent that are already on a downward spiral but they do not know it. Vocal degradation is very gradual. The young baritone feeling emotionally satisfied about a pushed high G (because it feels exciting to him) doesn’t know that he is inaudible most of the time and that the bass singing with him with a similar size instrument resonates in the house impressively with much less effort. Method acting, which was developed for capturing a moment on camera, does not transmit on an acoustic stage (sans microphones) very well. A measure of emotion must be calculated in a way that does not interfere with the instrument’s ability to project. Shakespearean actors spend years developing vocal resonance and emotional measure for the purpose of giving the audience what it needs to respond emotionally. Feeling “more” doesn’t mean the emotions are transmitted to the audience. Knowing how much to give emotionally and maintaining vocal balance is an inspired, purposeful act of committed action. The audience gets the impression that it is very real. When overly felt, the audience gets the impression they should not be there for this moment that should be private. Paradoxically, when the act is purposeful and measured (not randomly or just felt), the actor can actually go very far and the audience feels involved in witnessing a performance that evokes real emotions from them, rather than an act of theatrical masturbation that they are not comfortable witnessing. Great acting happens on a fine line of vulnerability and technical control. Barakova and Stavrakakis have developed this empathetic sense. Even on my iPad screen, they came alive. That’s why they won!

The two gold medal winners are greatly developed “operatic” actors. They understand music with all its components (harmony, rhythm, phrasal architecture, language, melodic contour, etc) as a vehicle for dramatic expression and they have sufficient vocal technique to sustain the music-drama. Stavrakakis is a great bass-baritone who sounds like a bass because he has not yet mastered his resonance. As often with lower voices, there is a tendency to exaggerate the darker colors of the voice. He conflates the sub-glottal resonance that can only be felt strongly on specific pitches with the vowel resonances that must be always changing relative to pitch. In other words, the larynx needs to float low, without the tongue root getting involved. Therefore he does well with the [i<—>E] vowel spectrum and less so with the [a<—>u] spectrum. Some faulty vowel strategies cost him in Wotans Abschied, for instance, and throughout the competition. But he won nonetheless and deservingly so for the touching nature of his performances, his musicianship and focused stage presence, even against a mighty competitor, such as Guhin Kim, who must be disappointed. The difference in the scoring could not possibly be substantial. Stavrakakis and Kim are a greater story, in my opinion, than Terfel/Hvorostovsky at Cardiff. The question remains whether they will be marketed appropriately and with patience. Kim was masterful and poised throughout. He is linguistically at home in Italian, German and Russian, impeccably prepared musically, dramatically committed and technically the most consistent singer in the whole competition, barring none. However, like my hero Cappuccilli, when I was still a baritone, there is an emotional distance. One can be theatrically masterful and dramatically measured, as Kim was throughout but not be emotionally vulnerable to the degree that both Stavrakakis and Barakova were.

For these two magnificent young talents I have a few cautionary words. Mr. Kim has his technique together and unlike Hvorostovsky, who was fundamentally a lyric baritone with dramatic presence, he is a burgeoning young Verdian baritone. But he is young! He is already a soloist on a fest contract in Hannover. It would be a grave error to give him anything heavier than Posa at this stage. If Hannover wants to help him, they should plan eight years of Bel Canto repertoire, Tchaikovsky and some excellent French works like Thomas’s Hamlet and Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Térésias. All these roles would be vehicles of artistic and physical growth. Balanced voices grow in balance and will handle greater volume (breath pressure) over time if they are challenged appropriately. This is something the operatic world has forgotten. Just because one has a Verdian voice, does not mean one should not sing Mozart or Donizetti. Guhin Kim will follow a long list of great Korean baritones to an early demise if he sings the heavier Verdi and Verismo roles before his mid to late thirties. He is more than a voice. He is a special talent who needs to be encouraged to become emotionally vulnerable and to choose his repertoire carefully. I pray he gets the chance! Wolfram lies fundamentally too low for such a voice and Amfortas too heavy for another 20 years.

Alexandros Stavrakakis is a future Wotan like Terfel never was. That Terfel and Hvorostovsky sang Wagner and Verdi at the Cardiff finals made unknowledgeable PR agents and managers package the two greatest male voices in recent generations wrongly. They assumed Verdi and Wagner too early respectively and in inappropriate roles. I would have killed to hear Terfel as the greatest Amfortas ever and maybe the greatest Jago of his generation. But he’s big and looks like Wotan. That was not enough. I’d hate to see two more top level young talents ruined by the operatic machine. Terfel is one of few singers who inspired tears from me. Stavrakakis has that potential and he is a future Wotan. Give him at least 15 years! Despite his bass-like quality, he should avoid true bass roles. Filippo II, yes! Banquo yes! Fiesco no! Sarastro, though not hurtful does not feature his best tessitura. Figaro, Leporello, Guglielmo in the original writing. Villains and devils! All three Mephistos (Gounod, Boito and Berlioz). Prince Igor. Boris later. Also 15 years. Until the resonance issues are worked out, any role that involves great orchestral forces will hurt him. For a bass-baritone, he is young and should have time to develop for the great roles that await him. It would be a shame if he does not become the Wotan we all hope because houses want to fill a few extra seats and agents want their 15%.

For the third place winner, the tenor, Agagzanian, I had the same thought as I do now when he won several prizes at Operalia last year: There is only one Domingo! A fine singer with a fine instrument that seems geared at every turn to copy the great Domingo, vocally, in physical mannerism, even aping Mr. Domingos signature bow at Operalia. I was happy to see that he stopped that horrific habit. My advice is develop a top and try to figure out the true unique color of that voice. We can learn a lot initially by copying our heroes but at some point we must find our personal truth unless we want to remain a pale copy. Enkhbold and Kuprianov are two excellent baritones that confuse pressing the voice in search of mask resonance for true squillo. I enjoyed them both.

For the gifted young mezzo (21 years old), Maria Barakova, I recommend slow development of breath support to manage the extremes of the voice. If anything, the length of the competition (10 days) revealed that this magnificent young singer doesn’t have the physical stamina for sustained singing of the type that would be required for rehearsals and preparation of a substantial role. Her first round was spectacular. As she went on, one could hear the wear of the voice and in the final round, her beautifully managed lower passaggio, which I enjoyed in the first round degraded into common, pressed chest voice and her elastic top became labored and out of tune. There are many great Russian singers to look up to. Obratsova and Borodina come to mind. Take it slow! I would love to enjoy that total artistry without vocal stress when I’m in my 90s. It’s worth it. Other young mezzos have taken the big Verdian parts in their mid 20s to their detriment even if they don’t know it yet. Deterioration is slow, but once we reach the tipping point, it hits like a hammer: swift and detrimental.

The other two winners, Khismatullina and Motolygina, have similar issues: a slight medial squeeze that contributes to a consistently high larynx, which in turn makes for slightly pushed or slightly shrill high notes. Khismatullina is very musical and the high larynx affects a light coloratura voice less than Motolygina’s lirico-spinto. Khismatullina though playful in her excellent Zerbinetta was emotionally protected throughout. Her physical language attests to this. Motolygina has a great instrument but either because of weaker musicianship or technical limitations giving her fewer musical options, I found her less convincing. Mayorova would have won third if weak breath support did not hamper her rich Tebaldi-like dramatic voice. The beginning of her Forza Leonora finally showed the true nature of the voice. One to remember! With further technical work, she could surpass all of her competitors here.

As always, I’m just one voice teacher commenting and one can never be totally sure how a voice sounds through three levels of filtering: 1) the microphones used in Russia 2) the internet and 3) my iPad and headset. Yet, as a voice teacher who advises professionals, I cannot help but worry for great young talent coming up through these competitions, no matter how well-meaning. Let’s face it! We’ve seen too many such promising young singers crash and burn way before they ever should have seen a top international stage.