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How the Metropolitan Opera Chooses a New Generation of Stars
By Anthony Tommasini
April 30, 2019
The Grand Finals Concert of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions doesn’t just offer the chance to hear the next Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming or Thomas Hampson, to mention three onetime winners. Opera lovers also get to compare their own passionate feelings about the finalists with those of the judges.
But while young instrumentalists arrive at conservatory more or less ready to go, there is nothing harder to assess in classical music than singers in their 20s, a decade when most voices are still in development. A soprano might still be figuring out whether her voice is better suited to lyric or dramatic repertory, or even whether she might in fact be a mezzo-soprano. Joyce DiDonato, who hosted last year’s finals concert, told the audience that the year she entered the auditions, she didn’t make it to the final round. Today she is a Met star.
At this year’s Grand Finals Concert in March, nine singers between 21 and 28 each performed two arias. I had my favorites, including a few I was sure would win. One was Miles Mykkanen, a tenor who brought the house down with a melting performance of Nadir’s aria from Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”). He was among the five winners. But Piotr Buszewski, another tenor, who brought an ardent voice and exciting top notes to arias by Donizetti and the Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, was not.
My hunches about other finalists were also off. The program began with Meghan Kasanders, a soprano who brought a gleaming sound and ample carrying power to “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.” Maybe she lacked a little dramatic fervor and rhythmic crispness. But these are things a young singer can acquire; her authentically Wagnerian sound seemed more precious. She didn’t win.
The bass William Guanbo Su seemed almost Ms. Kasanders’s opposite. In arias from Handel’s “Orlando” and Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” he displayed musical taste, honest execution of Handelian ornaments and bel canto filigree, and a solid voice. But his sound was modest, a little weak in the low register, and still developing. He won.
So what were the judges listening for? Is their task to assess this particular performance, in a vacuum? Or are they awarding based on their assessment of potential? (The other winners were the baritone Thomas Glass, the soprano Elena Villalón and the mezzo-soprano Michaela Wolz; the other finalists were the tenor Dashuai Chen and the soprano Alaysha Fox. WQXR classical radio will rebroadcast the concert on May 18 at 1 P.M. Eastern.
I put these questions to Melissa Wegner, the executive director of the National Council Auditions and one of the five judges, in a recent phone interview. (The judges’ panel also included Alexander Neef, the general director of the Canadian Opera Company and artistic director of Santa Fe Opera, and three Met officials: Jonathan Friend, artistic administrator; his associate, Paul Hopper; and Diane Zola, the assistant general manager for artistic matters.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
So what are the judges assessing? Is it the performances given that day, or what they discern as the potential of these emerging singers?
I’m asking the judges to think about four things. First of all, the vocal material, the quality of the voice. Does the timbre and size of the voice fit the repertory they are offering? Is this voice in a good place technically for the age and level of training that they’ve had?
We are also looking for musicianship — so phrasing, intonation. Does Mozart sound like Mozart? Does Puccini sound like Puccini? Do they have a good start on the language based on the level of training that they’ve had? And of course we are looking for interpretation. Is that a character we’re seeing up there, or are we just seeing a young singer? Are they comfortable on stage? Fourth is career potential. That’s the part that takes into account the background of these judges to make that assessment.
For the finals, I do ask the judges to think about those things in the context of that day. Most of us have heard these singers a time or two before. Maybe someone did better the week before, at the semifinals. But it’s important that we focus on this Sunday.
I’ve never been on a competition panel. Still, it’s hard to compare the Polish tenor, Piotr Buszewski, who had big top notes but wasn’t a winner, with, for example, the bass William Guanbo Su, who proved a solid, intelligent singer, but lacked some vocal presence and seemed a little stolid.
That’s where it gets difficult. In some ways, it comes down to personal taste, honestly, between all five of us. Something that is impressive in one way, like high C’s, might not actually — depending on how you are listening — check enough of the other boxes to move that singer forward.
Elena Villalón, the youngest finalist at 21, who did win, sang the Presentation of the Rose duet from Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” but without a mezzo-soprano Octavian to her Sophie. She struck me as someone with a lovely but young voice. By choosing to sing the Strauss, she was in a way signaling to her target listeners what she could be as Sophie some day.
You know, the semifinals were the previous Sunday. First thing Monday, in collaboration with the singers, the maestro [Carlo Rizzi, who conducted the Met Orchestra in the finals concerts] and I decided what their repertory would be for the finals. With a scene like that Strauss, which is frequently sung as a soprano aria with piano, it was something that Elena had been singing often.
She made you see her as the character, and as being able to suspend time the way it needs to happen in that moment. What she is able to do in that piece as an aria, rather than as a duet, accomplishes all of the goals you need. I would imagine it felt like something she was really confident in, as opposed to a risk.
Michaela Wolz sang two trouser-role arias, from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” and Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” wearing trousers! She seemed to be saying, “Here I am, doing the whole thing, acting and singing in character.” For me, the Gluck was a little cautious, the tempo a little careful. On the other hand, there she was, doing it all.
And in the moment! They have just two rehearsals with the orchestra, remember. With Michaela, one of her places of confidence is in the interpretation of it.
Thomas Glass, for one of his choices, sang an aria from Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” the only work on the program by a living composer. Did making a statement by performing new music factor in? Or did the aria simply suit his voice?
I think it’s much more that it suited his voice. There was so much unique repertory on this concert. We take the arias as they are presented. The whole goal is to sing beautifully and really communicate. Really great singers can get on that stage and change the room.
I’ve always liked that this competition designates winners without ranking them. But of course I feel bad for the other finalists.
Singers who make it to this stage of the competition, we maintain close relationships with them. We have an education fund. These singers are allowed to come back to the Met and audition for the artistic staff over the next three years. When the staff hears them, they might get small roles, or covers, or potential leading roles down the line. I know it sounds a bit trite to say, “You are all winners.” No doubt, though, we will see them in the future.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/arts ... tions.html
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