Posted by: operatheaterink | September 5, 2014

Opera Review and Opinion, Operalia 2014, Los Angeles, Sept. 5, 2014

Thinking Outside the Box

Operalia Winners with Plácido Domingo. (Photo: Craig Mathew)

SEEN AUGUST 30, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

This is not a normal review from top to bottom. It is rather some observances that I made while watching the Operalia competition online on Medici.TV on Saturday night, Aug. 30, taped live from the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

I must begin by saying that I was not in the Pavilion so I could be incorrect regarding some of my observations because voices need to be heard live to access them accurately, but I will articulate my views anyhow.

First and foremost, this was and is Plácido Domingo’s competition, so naturally, although he was not a judge, his input was coveted. The abundance of talented young artists made for some tough decisions. However I feel that some singers were destined to win, if not first place, then second or third. In fact, I believe that they were destined to win before the competition even began.

As for the performers’ popularity with the audience, that was also somewhat predetermined. Some of the singers are or have been participants in LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program and were known by many of the audience members who came to root for them. So naturally, this time around in Los Angeles, the popularity of the singers was a bit predetermined, and awards were granted for this popularity.

Even the performance order of the singers seemed to favor certain artists. When Joshua Guerrero, Amanda Woodbury and John Holiday were called upon to perform toward the end of the competition, I said, “Aha.” As part of the Young Artist Program, I assumed that Guerrero and Woodbury had worked with Domingo and were prepared and expected to be winners. I even saw a video of Domingo coaching Holiday to showcase the competition. But in the end, I thought that the award choices were basically fair. I think there were some unexpected winners which still enabled the predetermined artists to place. Still, I feel sorry for the 1000 contestants who entered the competition, and for the 40 who competed in Los Angeles, because the slate was not clean at the onset. Yet the first- and second-place winners were very obviously the most deserving.

The jury consisted of 15 distinguished judges. I won’t list them all here, but they included Marta Domingo, Plácido Domingo’s wife and the director of LA Opera’s “La Traviata”; LA Opera Music Director James Conlon; LA Opera CEO Christopher Koelsch; F. Paul Driscoll, Editor-in-Chief of “Opera News”; Anthony Freud, General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago; Jonathan Friend, artistic administrator of the Met; Ioan Holender, artistic advisor of the Met and former general director of the Wiener Staatsoper; Peter Katona, casting director of the Royal Opera House, London; Joan Matabosch, artistic director, Teatro Real, Madrid; Andrés Rodriguez, General Director, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Chile; Helga Schmidt, Intendente, Palau de les Arts, Valencia, Spain.

These are very significant names in the opera world. I would have liked to have seen some international singers in the mix as well, plus even some prominent voice teachers or professors. Some of the members of the jury had vocal backgrounds before switching to administration and casting, but some did not. Part of the purpose of Operalia is to showcase young opera talents so that they have the opportunity to be heard by those who cast for the leading opera companies. Still, to arrive at an unbiased appraisal, a few singers and teachers might have added positively to the mix.

That said, soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen sang Wagner’s “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser.” Performing first is not an enviable position, but as the other sopranos performed, she proved clearly to be the winner for her clear vocality, secure professionality and stage presence. However, she not only won the female first-place prize, but also the Birgit Nilsson Prize as well as the prize for zarzuela. She was the only competitor to sing Wagner or Strauss who made it to the finals, so she was the only singer who could have secured the Nilsson prize. Maybe there should be a larger pool of Wagnerian singers in the future. They exist. Maybe Operalia could steal some from the Seattle Opera contest. Hopefully, as long as the award exists, there should be a larger pool to draw from.

Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang was an excellent choice for the male first-place winner. He sang “Ella mi fu rapita” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” I don’t believe he won for having necessarily the best voice, but rather for blending his solid tones with security, passion and charisma. When he walked out on the stage, he was a presence, and he was able to communicate the emotions of what we think of as an Italian tenor to the audience. He may need work technically if he wants to sustain a lasting career. He is not a natural tenor with a naturally focused tenor sound like Pavarotti’s was in his younger years. Chang’s tones didn’t seem as lyric and were not effortlessly placed naturally. Some slightly more baritonal tenors have to work harder to achieve a tenor’s resonance, but often become even more successful in the end. However, I must preface this observation by saying that I heard Chang had some sort of catarrh the week before the competition, so the ailment may have affected his delivery. He was bringing the tones up instead of relaxing the throat so that they could just “be there.” So by the end of the aria, vocal tension led to hoarseness. However the jury seemed to disregard the problem because it took great strength for this artist to compete against the caliber of singers in the competition when not in perfect health. So Chang was the male winner because he had the most charismatic presence and emotional musicality of the tenors, and there were no basses or baritones in the finals. Chang was also the winner of the male zarzuela and audience popularity prizes.

Joshua Guerrero sang Puccini’s “Torna ai felici di.” The audience seemed to want him to win, so he was singing with a fan club. He has a rare presence. Part of him seemed to be saying: “Here I am. I am ‘it.’ I am supposed to win.” And another part of him seemed surprised at all the attention. As he received applause at the end of the aria, he seemed to be saying: “You like me? I wanted you to like me. I know I was supposed to expect this, but I can’t quite believe this is real. You mean it is ‘me’ who is creating this applause? Gee, thank you.”

So with Joshua Guerrero, you get someone who sings with security but still is insecure. Did he have the best voice of the tenors? I don’t know. Maybe. Why did he win the male second-place prize and the CulturArte award? First, he is likeable. But mostly, of all the tenors, his technique was by far the best. He has no doubt spent time as a member of the LA Opera Young Artist Program receiving lots of in-depth individual attention. I have watched numerous classes in the studio of Vladimir Chernov at UCLA. Chernov often explains to students to be “mad like a dog” or some other rabid animal. I never quite understood what he was alluding to. Well, I was watching Guerrero, and suddenly I saw the mad dog trait in the way he projected a tone. I saw it on his face and heard it in his delivery. Only later did I see that he has studied in Austria with Chernov. What was so obvious was that his tones were up where they should be. They were focused so that they could ring forth with support and little tension. His body was grounded yet his tones were flying. He is preparing his voice for the long haul. For this competition, he might not have been as polished or charismatic or passionate as Chang, but he has the goods, and he will keep the goods for a very long time. I have to praise him for having the integrity to learn his craft. I still think that Chang was the right first-place winner, but maybe not if they were to compete together again in a couple of years.

Likewise, Amanda Woodbury, the female second-place winner, came out on the stage and knocked everyone alive with her bravura and polished performance of “A vos jeux, mes amis” from Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet.” She too has received much attention as a participant in the Young Artist Program and beyond, as Micaëla in a recent LA Opera production of “Carmen.” She is ready, and the audience liked her.

I feel badly for some of the other competitors, though. First, I must say that two countertenors won the male third-place award: Andrey Nemzer and John Holiday. I believe that Holiday was the predetermined singer to win. He will be singing in LA Opera’s upcoming “Dido & Aeneas.” However, when Nemzer proved to be quite extraordinary in voice and presentation, the jury had to do something. The result was a tie between both artists. Both were worthy, yet it seems that a choice should have been made.

The same thing happened with the third-place female singers. Anaïs Constans sang Bellini’s “O quante volte ti chiedo” and Mariangela Sicilia sang Gounod’s “Amour, ranime mon courage.” Sicilia, who was the more charismatic of the two talented women, positioned her face and mouth in a manner I have only seen with tenors. She sort of pouched her upper lip downwards and didn’t smile with an uplift to her cheeks. I knew a tenor who sang that way but quickly changed tactics. Neither soprano excited me as being phenomenal although both have trained well. Their top tones proved less than thrilling. Yet they tied for third place when others were also deserving.

The two mezzo-sopranos were quite special. Alisa Kolosova seemed a little lost on the stage as she sang “Cruda sorte” from Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” but I heard a unique quality in her voice from the onset. Carol Garcia sang Rossini’s “Nacqui all’affanno” from “La Cenerentola.” Technically, her voice crescendoed to the highs with richness that never sounded thin or metallic, and she had a wonderful chesty quality to her lows. There was no break in the passaggio area (which was admirable) and she navigated the coloratura well. Was she a perfect Angelina? Probably not. Was the aria even the most appropriate for her voice with its dramatic capabilities? That I don’t know. All I know is that she has the potential for a thriving career, and I didn’t like having to compare her voice to the voices of the sopranos who tied for third place. I believe that Garcia was ripe for a commendation.

The tenor finalists who did not win prizes had promising voices but were insecure, not as strong technically as they might have been, nor did they have strong stage presence. Strangely, both chose Massenet selections. Abdellah Lasri sang “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” from “Manon,” and Yi Li sang “Pourquoi me réveiller” from “Werther.” Singing from the French repertoire can often lead to nasal singing if a tenor is not careful, but it also enables the sound of a tear to flow forth. Yi Li sang with much sensitivity and feeling. I heard great potential.

Each artist in the competition was at a different stage of development. I suggest that maybe a fourth-place prize might be established to eliminate ties and to give more of the finalists the ability to achieve. I believe that all of the finalists were incredibly talented, including Christina Poulitsi, who could have easily tied with one of the third-place sopranos. All of the finalists should feel rewarded. Great artists have something singular that makes them special. It is that particular singular quality which should be nurtured. One singer should never try to sing like another to compete. Some of the artists still need to work more than others on technique or acting or stage presence, but they should all be extremely proud of their accomplishments. Bravo to all the winners — all 13 of them.

Concert Conducted by Plácido Domingo

Ages of Finalists: 26 to 32

First-Place Prize: $30,000
Second-Place: $20,000
Third-Place: $10,000
Birgit Nilsson Prize: $15,000
CulturArte Prize: $10,000
Zarzuela Prize: $10,000

Encore to Review

My Operalia review is on the finals concert. After posting it, I looked at the list of contestants and started searching for some of them on YouTube. I was not at the competition and do not know how some of competitors performed. A clip on YouTube may not be a valid indicator of an artist’s performance under pressure at a competition. But not one baritone, bass or bass-baritone made it to the final round. I thought that possibly no one could compete. Please listen to Germán Olvera who didn’t make the grade. I like what I hear.