Singers Compete, Pitting Artistry Against Volume Level

United StatesUnited States Operalia 2014: Soloists, Operalia musicians, Plácido Domingo (conductor), Los Angeles Music Center, Los Angeles, CA. 8.25.2014 (RDA)

Mario Chang, tenor; Anais Constans, soprano; Carol Garcia, mezzo-soprano; Joshua Guerrero, tenor; John Holiday, countertenor; Alisa Kosolova, mezzo-soprano; Abdellah Lasri, tenor; Yi Li, tenor; Andrey Nemzer, tenor; Christina Poulitsi, soprano; Mariangela Sicilia, soprano; Rachel Willis-Soerensen, soprano; Amanda Woodbury, soprano.

In the recent finals of Operalia 2014, Placido Domingo’s voice competition held this year in Los Angeles, which can be viewed on (and at the moment, on a pirated link on YouTube), one can hear lots of loud singing accompanied by a great deal of ham-fisted approaches to music and text. Finesse, style, artistry, alas, are not in oversupply these days if we are to judge from this year’s parade of some of the Operalia winners and losers.

Russian countertenor Andrey Menzer sang “Chudny son zhivoy lubvi” from Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla and shared the third prize with American countertenor John Holiday. Both young artists possess spectacular technique and substantial male alto voices. In the case of Menzer, the young Russian was fully capable of cutting through the lush Romantic Glinka orchestration. His upcoming assignments at the Met augur a prosperous career.

John Holiday, a 2012 graduate of the Master of Music in Voice program at the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music is the more elegant singer of the two, seemingly most at home in the Baroque repertory, judging from his winning aria, “Crude Sorte” from Handel’s Serse, sung with panache and dead-on fioriture.

Mario Chang, a Guatemalan tenor all of 24 years of age, was

I liked all three tenors, each of whom placed musicality and artistry before sheer volume, and all showing wisdom in their choice of audition material and caution in their future career engagements. But it was the young Mexican who brought the house down, passionately singing “Torna ai felici di” from Puccini’s Le Villi.

The second portion of the evening was given over to the Zarzuela competition. A few of the contestants essayed their Spanish light opera choices eliciting bravos and feet stomping from the audience—the louder the singing, the longer the ovations. For me it was again Guerrero, who nailed the elusive Zarzuela style with his finely sung “De este apacible…” from Moreno-Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda.

Among the women, the results were clear to predict, from the moment an instant hit with his “Parmi veder le lagrime” from Rigoletto, a choice that won him the audience favorite prize. At this point in his career, the kind of full-throated singing Chang does is dangerously muscular, triggering memories of Rolando Villazon’s recent vocal troubles. Chang later returned to deliver a full-throttle “No puede ser” from Zorozábal’s La Tabernera del Puerto. The judges, not one voice teacher or singer in their midst, were impressed with his “more is more” singing, awarding him first prizes in the Male and Zarzuela categories.

Three other tenors participated in the Operalia 2014 finals, starting with Joshua Guerrero, a 31-year old Mexican—more on him in a moment. Abdellah Lasri, a 32-year old Moroccan, offered a lyrical “Ah! Fuyez douce image” from Massenet’s Manon and a zarzuela selection, and Chinese Tenor Yi Li—like Holiday, a recent graduate of the MM Voice program at UC/CCM, who stepped up to the plate with a well-sung “Pourquoi me réveiller from Massenet’s Werther. 26-year old-lyric coloratura soprano Amanda Woodbury stepped onto the stage of the Los Angeles Music Center. Encapsulating the characteristics that make up the so-called “complete package”, the soprano sang the mad scene from Thomas’ Hamlet with good French, even better musicality and better-than-best technique. Woodbury, also a recent graduate of the MM Voice program at UC/CCM, is an imaginative and classy singer equipped with a full lyric instrument that rises up above the staff seemingly with no effort. She received first prize in the female category and also earned the audience favorite prize, sharing the top honor with soprano Rachel Willis-Soerensen.

In a master class given by bass-baritone George London, I heard the great Canadian singer sound a warning to the young singers in attendance—a warning that still resonates after more than forty-five years. Unable to quote London verbatim, I will paraphrase: “The singer’s graveyard is filled with Papagenos who wanted to be Wotans and Papagenas who wanted to be Aidas…” In the ensuing years those who love singing and singers have witnessed the tragic vocal demises of the likes of Greek soprano Elena Suliotis, and of any number of young Tristans not quite ready for even one act of that killer role. The list could go on and on.

As one hears in these voice contests—an unending parade of hopefuls, many with tremendous potential—an alarm is sounded by the opportunism on the part of the management of opera houses. Many will not think twice about awarding and then casting young singers in roles for which they are not even remotely ready. I hope that fate does not befall any of these promising young talents.

Rafael de Acha

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