Plácido Domingo’s Operalia – A Flawed Competition but with the Correct Result

Plácido Domingo’s 2015 Operalia:  Finalists, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Plácido Domingo (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 19.7.2015. (JPr)

This is it
Plácido Domingo and Operalia 2015 Winners c Alastair Muir

In addition to vying for the competition’s main prizes, Carroll, Hotea, Howarth, Park and Pati competed in Operalia’s Zarzuela category (requiring preparation of a zarzuela aria for the audition-style quarter- and semi-finals).

Plácido Domingo has said that ‘My purpose in Operalia is to help identify not only the best voices, but also to discover those singers whose personalities, characters and powers of interpretation show that they have the potential to become complete artists. Individuals such as these become tomorrow’s stars.’ This major international singing competition was being held in London for the first time in its 22-year history. It began on 13 July with quarter-finals and semi-finals which were closed to the public but the finals on 19 July took place before an audience.

Founded in 1993, Operalia is open to singers of all voice types between the ages of 18 and 32. The competition has promoted artists of the calibre of Angel Blue, Joseph Calleja, José Cura, Joyce DiDonato, Carmen Giannattasio, Ana María Martínez, Ailyn Pérez, Erwin Schrott, Nina Stemme, Rolando Villazón and Sonya Yoncheva. From those applying to enter the competition – which is hosted by a different city every year – only 40 are chosen to participate and compete in front of a jury of 10 leading industry professionals, including general managers and casting directors from some of the most important international opera houses. These included the Royal Opera’s Peter Mario Katona and Bayreuth’s Eva Wagner-Pasquier. Although Plácido Domingo does not vote himself he is actively present throughout the competition, offering advice on artistic and career development to all of the participants and sensitively accompanying them by conducting the orchestra. Introducing the event he seemed especially ‘chuffed’ to be presenting Operalia at Covent Garden on the stage and with the orchestra with which he has had a 44-year association.

Operalia awards two $30,000 first prizes, two $20,000 second prizes, and two $10,000 third prizes, with one male and one female singer receiving prizes in each category. In addition, one man and woman each receives a $15,000 Birgit Nilsson prize for his or her performance of an aria by Richard Strauss or Richard Wagner. Likewise, among those participating in the Zarzuela category, one male and one female singer receives a $10,000 Zarzuela prize, given and named in honour of Plácido Domingo’s parents — who were stars of the Spanish form of operetta — and meant to encourage singers to work in the art form. Two audience-prize winners, awarded by polling those watching the finals concert, get watches offered by Rolex, the competition’s sponsor. Finally, Bertita and Guillermo Martinez from Culturarte de Puerto Rico support a $10,000 Culturarte Prize. So almost everyone has a chance of a prize and that is perhaps how it should be? I have long given up on the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition with different voice types competing against each other for one main top prize and – more often than not – having a soprano win.

Open to singers from every country and of every voice type, this year’s competition drew more than one thousand initial applicants. Of the 40 candidates invited to London, 20 went through to the semi-finals and 11 to the final. Contralto Claudia Huckle, who won the Birgit Nilsson Prize in 2013, is the only British singer ever to have been awarded a prize – surely pause for thought? Sadly this year – despite being hosted at Covent Garden – there was only one British singer in the initial 40 and she – mezzo-soprano Catherine Young – did not get through to the public final.  Amongst all the nationalities competing there was notably no German singer. One of Royal Opera’s current Jette Parker Young Artists, Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth, did however win the Culturarte prize.

For about three decades with some on and off involvement in young singers and their auditions I have had the mantra that ‘The world does not need another soprano’ so I was grateful for Operalia for partly addressing this frequent competition bias. Sopranos were clearly going to get at least six prizes but male voices have the opportunity for just as many! It still remains a deeply flawed ‘competition’ in my opinion. Live streamed by Medici TV I suspect – unlike the Covent Garden audience – they will have had subtitles so that for the more unfamiliar arias and the zarzuelas it would have been clear what the contestants were actually singing about. Also why was South Korean Hyesang Park allowed to sing Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ Il dolce suono from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that went on … and on … seemed to finished and then took off again! Of course she should have an opportunity to show-off her talent but not to the extent that her single contribution seemed longer than that of the combined efforts of the five singers that preceded her. There was also too much Rossini and Donizetti with Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss (for which a $15,000 prize was on offer) as notable absentees.

The singers walk on – and unless they are also zarzuela finalists – sing their one aria and then quickly walk off with little time to acknowledge any applause … and that is it. I have no doubt that most of the judging will have been done before the public competition final. Despite all these reservations the result was probably correct and I have rarely found myself in as much agreement with an adjudication panel as I was when the results were announced. By far and away the most talented and promising singers were the Samoan-born Aucklander tenor Darren Pene Pati, who sang Tombe degli avi miei (also from Lucia di Lammermoor) and the almost impossibly tall Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen, who raised the rafters with Dich, teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. In an age when ‘big voices’ are frowned upon – at least in this country – these two singers could effortlessly fill the Royal Opera House in a way none of their fellow competitors could.

Darren Pene Pati had a wonderful Italianate sound and superb vocal control harnessed to subtle phrasing; Lise Davidsen is one of an endangered species and provides great hope for the future – she is a genuine dramatic soprano of Wagnerian proportions with a strong lower register and gleaming top. To be honest most of the rest of those competing were a mixed bunch and apart from Hyesang Park’s dazzling – though albeit very studied – coloratura, the only singer who really created an impression was Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea who sang Ah mes amis from Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment with its infamous nine high Cs. As well as he sang this – for me – any ‘wow’ factor was missing and I thought his voice was a size too small. However in a video before the prize-giving one of those interviewed explained how important ‘physical appearance’ was to the members of the jury. Ioan Hotea was slim and handsome and Darren Pene Pati more charismatic but big and broad. When I heard what was said it was obvious that Hotea would win the First Prize. This proved correct and I was glad Pati was second. The audience appreciating that the voice is more important than appearance placed Pati first – though according to Domingo there were only three votes separating him from the second-placed singer who I suspect must have been Hotea! Not surprisingly, Lise Davidsen won the Female Audience Prize and also took away the Brigit Nilsson Prize. Her $45,000 and a Rolex wristwatch was not bad for her week’s work!

From 2011-2013, Ioan Hotea was an ensemble member of the Bucharest National Opera, with roles including Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore and Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.  Future engagements include Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Nemorino in Wiesbaden, and Dorvil in La scala di seta in Liège. A recent graduate of The Royal Danish Opera Academy in Copenhagen, Lise Davidsen made her debut at the Norwegian National Opera earlier this year as Susanna in Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna.  In November, she will make her debut at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich as Ortlinde in Die Walküre.

The full list of winners is as follows:

First Prizes of $30,000: Ioan Hotea, Romania/Lise Davidsen, Norway

Second Prizes of $20,000: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Hyesang Park, South Korea

Third Prizes of $10,000: Edward Parks, USA/Noluvuyiso Mpofu, South Africa

Birgit Nilsson Prize of $15,000: Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Pepita Embil Domingo Zarzuela Prize of $10,000: Hyesang Park, South Korea

The Don Plácido Domingo, Sr, Zarzuela Prize of $10,000: Ioan Hotea, Romania

Audience Prizes, Rolex Wristwatches: Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Culturarte Prize of $10,000: Kiandra Howarth, Australia

Jim Pritchard

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