Opera Competitions: How Do Judges Judge?

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As this post is being written, nine young singers are preparing for one of the most important days of their careers. They are the finalists in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the world’s most important vocal competitions. These nine (two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, one countertenor, two tenors, two baritones, one bass-baritone) are the last of almost 1500 participants in this year’s auditions. The competition will take place on Sunday at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Victory in the Met National Council Auditions has launched the careers of many top singers. A recent winner, Angela Meade, has won more than fifty competitions, but the Met finals rank among the most important. The year she won, 2007, was depicted in an excellent documentary film called “The Audition." In it, the filmmakers take you backstage for coaching and auditions as well as hear the judges speak candidly about the singers.


What Judges Look For

The stated purpose of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions is:

1. To discover exceptional young talent.

2. To provide a venue for young opera singers from all over the country and at all different levels of experience to be heard by a representative of the Metropolitan Opera and to assist those with the greatest potential in their development.

3. To search for new talent for the Metropolitan Opera and the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Each singing competition has its own set of rules and guidelines in terms of the age of the entrants, their level of study achieved and how far along they are in their careers. Many, though not all, require an entrance fee. A lot of the competitions are funded by generous patrons such as Gerda Lissner or are organized under the aegis of a prominent singer such as Licia Albanese or Marcello Giordani.

Two of the most significant vocal competitions are in Europe. Held every other year, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest in Wales is distinct in that each participating country has one entrant. Cardiff draws superstar singers as judges and is widely followed on a BBC transmission seen round the world. The first winner, in 1983, was Karita Mattila. In 1989, Dmitri Hvorostovsky defeated local hero Bryn Terfel. American soprano Nicole Cabell won in 2005. The 2011 winner was Valentina Nafornita from Moldova.

The Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels is held for singers every third year (with piano and violin filling in the intervening ones). It is as important as Cardiff and the Met, with its own set of rules and considerations. I will be filing an article for you about musical life in Brussels in the near future in which I will discuss this competition in detail. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the genial Michel-Etienne Van Neste, head of the Queen Elisabeth competition, who shared some of the guidelines for its judges in choosing winners:

“We want [to select] complete musicians who are ready to start a career," he said. "Don’t only look at technical aspects but find those musicians who have something to say and something to give.” He pointed out that the first article of the competition’s rules specifies that, when judging, “any racial, religious or personal considerations will not be accepted.” The Brussels jury is a combination of singers, teachers and opera managers. There is no discussion among judges, who privately fill out ballots which are then calculated.

I have served as a judge in some competitions, a mission I take seriously because I realize how important it is to the young artists who are participating. They have made a significant investment to get there, both in terms of the countless hours of training as well as the practical details of transportation, lodging, clothing and, at times, paying an accompanist. In addition to the financial considerations, there is a huge emotional investment. They dream of a career that not all of them can achieve. Even if they win a competition, there is no guarantee they will be the next Angela Meade.

Recently I was a judge at a competition in the U.S. along with one of the world’s top basses and an excellent mezzo-soprano. It was meaningful to me because I have immense respect for these two singers and also for the seriousness of their approach to judging. We discussed all of the participants and came to a joint decision on the winners. They wanted to find singers who would serve the art form well, but also did their judging with great care in terms of the feelings and realistic career prospects of all the entrants. If all judges were like these two, I would have more confidence in finding another generation of singers. 

Unmentionable Criteria

What is often not said is that some judges at all levels of competition do indeed bring certain thinking and -- let’s be blunt -- prejudices to the process. An important opera executive in Europe told me that it is not uncommon to bypass male singers from East Asia because they are thought to lack charisma. In the not too distant past, black tenors were often bypassed because they were not seen as suitable onstage romantic partners to white sopranos. Such discrimination is, of course, deplorable, but it is real. I refer you to my two recent articles on Blackness in Opera.

One of the major unspoken considerations, when faced with an auditioning singer on a stage, is whether to judge him or her relative to the others competing on that day or as to who stands the best chance of having a career. Judges who are singers have taken both approaches. Opera managers (whether executives in theaters or those who become singers' agents) often think first of career potential rather than who was the best on a given day.

A tenor with the right package of gifts and skills (beautiful voice, musicality, excellent singing ability, charisma, fine phrasing and use of language) with an attractive appearance being a desirable plus, has a much better chance of winning than a soprano with comparable assets. There simply are fewer tenors in the world at any given time.

My approach is to give more weight to the singer who moved me the most on the day of the judging. I have heard singers with some imperfections whose singing nonetheless affects me deeply -- they have something meaningful to say and have the means to do it. If I feel that a singer’s weaknesses are not fixable, then I would be less inclined to vote for that person. But if someone hits one wrong note in an otherwise memorable rendition of an aria, I would be more inclined to prefer that person to someone who might be technically flawless but unemotive.

What Are Singers Bringing?

A cause for alarm is that many young singers I hear have natural gifts but poor training. I often wonder who is teaching their teachers how to teach. The young singer might be trusting and perhaps cannot discern who a good teacher is. I have heard twenty-two year old singers attempt repertory that is too daunting for artists in the early stages of their careers. Who suggested that music to them?

Another problem, one that young singers and their coaches must work on, is that so many contestants perform arias as music but without the dramatic context. I believe that if you are going to “bring” (that is the operative verb) five arias, you need to know about the characters and the operas they belong to and to know specifically what happens in the opera when that aria is sung. This knowledge will help the singer find dramatic and musical specificity. And, given that many judges are thinking in terms of careers, it probably would not be wise for a twenty-four year old bass to bring Boris Godunov when there are roles such as Figaro or the many of incarnations of Mephistopheles which would be more likely to be filled by a younger person.

Often, the contestant will choose her first aria and then the judges will look at the other ones she brought and decide which one to ask her to do next. Typically, the second piece will be in a different language or style and also represent a different mood or dramatic situation. If a mezzo brings a couple of “trouser roles” (Cherubino or Octavian, for example) and others that are women (The Italian Girl or Cenerentola from Rossini or, perhaps, Charlotte from Massenet’s Werther), the judges will want to hear one of each gender. By the time singers reach the finals of many competitions, including the Met, they pick the music they wish to sing.

A positive aspect of many competitions, including the Met district and regionals as well as the Queen Elisabeth, is that judges are asked to meet privately with each contestant after the event to provide input that can range from polishing of details to a heavy dose of tough love. I enjoy doing that and, perhaps, offering ideas that they have not yet heard. But I am very mindful that dreams and emotions are delicate and, when trampled, are hard to put back together.

While preparing this article, I spotted a comment on Facebook by John Keene, the chorus master and head of Young Artist Studio and Music Staff at Florida Grand Opera in Miami: “Judging a competition, in these times when it seems so many people are saying no to what we do -- I just want to hug all these young people who are trying, undeterred.” One of his Facebook friends commented, “God, I couldn't agree more. As frustrated as I get by this all, I love young singers so much, for their hearts.” So true.