Thursday, July 28, 2011
Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: Why Operalia Is The Competition to Take Part In and Why 2011 Is a Special Year
I had a gracious offer to attend Operalia 2011 and unfortunately could not accept. By some unusual sequence of events, my Europen visa expired on July 18th and my appointment to renew was on the 25th, during which time I could not travel outside of the Eurozone and Operalia took place precisely between the 18th and 24th of July. Sometimes we have to accept that somethings are not meant to happen.
Thanks to Medeci.tv, I was able to follow the final round. I have seen a lot of competitions in the past few years and the final rounds usual disappoint me because finalists are often chosen based on their ability to appear polished when the fundamental sound had not yet been developed. It was a delight to hear the 13 young singers and have a sense that the judges had chosen well. All the singers sang with a full-voiced production that would and did travel very well through the orchestra. I had the impression that Medici.tv’s microphones were set up to give a fair impression of the acoustics of the hall. The singers did not sound equally present in the webcast, but none had any problem projecting. Opera is like a sky-scrapper supported by several indispensable steel girders. Voice is one of those girders. It is not the only one, but without it, opera is not sustainable. The Moscow audience was the most participant of any audience I have seen at a competition. They had a real stake in the competition and it was not surprising that the judges’ choices for male and female winner were also the audience’s choices and indeed they (both audience and judges) selected correctly, in my opinion.
Beyond voice, each finalist had a singular presence and style. Some had a more effective combination than others. One also had a sense of the drama of the competition. One tenor obviously with an impressive full voice with powerful top notes sounded hoarse, either from fatigue or sickness. Perhaps he caught a cold or perhaps he over-practiced preparing for the finals. Hard to tell, but one had the sense that there was an athletic aspect to these proceedings. One had a certain feeling that there was something very physical being done, besides the obvious artistic content. It felt like the finals of Olympic Figure Skating. Great Olympic figure skaters are rare because they require the same combination of physical strength and stamina and artistic (indeed musical) sensitivity. Interestingly enough, their routines usually last the length of an average operatic aria.
I was having dinner with one of my students last night and she had been a quarter-finalist at Operalia some 7 years ago. She concurred that it was among the two best organized and most fun competitions she ever did and she has won a few. She has an extraordinary talent and works constantly. Operalia was not wrong to chose her as a participant back then, and I have a sense they make excellent choices in general judging by the career development of their winners.
Of course, Placido Domingo’s unprecedented star power generates the kind of international, corporate, artistic support necessary to make this the premiere competition for young artists available. If his conducting is not the most refined, his joy at accompanying these young singers is infectious and as much as he tries to keep a neutral face, he beams with excitement when a singer really sings well. I don’t think any of these young singers would want a different conductor in the finals. Not only is there something special about having the great Placido conduct them in an aria, there is a definite sense of the aging Maestro passing the baton. What young singer would not want to feel like one of Domingo’s heirs? Symbolically, his musical presence in the capacity of conductor is not only appropriate, it is necessary.
Every competition has something memorable and Operalia 2011 may be historically the most significant because it crowned the achievements of a singular singer, who could even have been expected to win. The coronation of Pretty Yende (featured here on the blog a few months ago), the young South African sensation who has won pretty much every competition she’s entered, could not have been anywhere else. Operalia is a star-making competition and if the electrifying Ms. Yende was already a star, she was confirmed on the afternoon of July 23rd in Moscow.
I would go as far as predicting that barring some unforeseen mishap, this young soprano may become Maestro Domingo’s most lasting heir and opera’s best hope. Ms. Yende, in a field of extremely talented young singers, surpassed her colleagues in every sense and by far. I do not belittle them when I say she was in a league all her own. Although still getting used to a growing instrument, her technical mastery was far beyond anyone else’s. Her musicianship is extraordinarily refined and consciously utilized to impressive effect. Her presence is of the sort that does not go to the audience but rather entice it into her world. Beside her rare combination of artistic attributes, Ms. Yende is a strikingly beautiful and elegant woman, radiating a paradoxical combination of charm, humility, grace and confidence that are the hallmarks of a great diva. Operalia has given her a vote of confidence, which may be the necessary wind she needed in her sails to take her career to the important next level.
I hope to attend Operalia next year but I am very sorry to have missed this one: to have seen Moscow for the first time, possibly meet Maestro Domingo at last, whose performance of Otello in the early 80s turned me from potential engineer to singer, to experience this well-organized and targeted competition first hand and to see possibly operatic history being made in the person of Pretty Yende would have been priceless.
Some things are simply done right and Operalia is one of those things. Opera still has hope! Thank you Maestro Domingo!