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Top of Their Game

General Director and CEO Keith Cerny describes the expanded format of The Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, and how impressed he was with the high standard of the applicants, semi-finalists, and winners.

published Sunday, May 3, 2015


Dallas — Over the weekend of April 18 and 19, 2015, the 27th annual Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition took place in the Winspear Opera House. This was a major milestone for the event, as the opera’s leadership team had worked closely with the Dallas Opera Guild President Susan Fleming and competition Chair Ketty Fitzgerald to expand the competition from a regional contest to a national one. Re-imagining the event also allowed us to give the finalists the opportunity to rehearse and perform for a live audience—with full orchestra conducted by Music Director Emmanuel Villaume. Also for the first time, supertitles were displayed for every selection.

We were also quite honored that Dr. Brian Zeger agreed to Chair the judges’ panel for this 27th competition. In addition to his distinguished concert career, and many other roles, Dr. Zeger serves as Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Department at The Juilliard School and as the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artists Development Program.

For the first time, too, applications were received and processed through a fully electronic system, the “YAP tracker”, which streamlined the application and evaluation process. This system was named in a recent article by Opera Pulse as “One of the Top 10 best things to happen to opera in the 21st century.”  If you are not familiar (and, unless you’re in this field, why should you be?) the site can be located here.

Photo: Devon Cass
Anthony Clark Evans

Right out of the gate, we knew that the expanded format of the competition was going to be extremely popular. We had a total of 362 applicants, representing the majority of important music schools and young artist programs in the U.S., which was more than four times the level of activity in recent years. One of the first steps for my team was to winnow down the pool from 362 to a manageable number. As with most young artist training programs and competitions, around half of this number was ready for a national competition, and half still required further training to be realistic candidates. Artistic Administrator Ian Derrer and Artistic Coordinator David Lomeli invested a very full weekend to review the submitted audio clips from all the applicants, and select the top 100 or so—already a very difficult task. Working with Dr. Zeger and TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, they eventually produced a list of the top 60 applicants, out of which the top 20 were selected for the semi-finals. This was a daunting task, as all 60 were impressive young artists, and we hope very much that the 40 not selected will apply again next year.

Having distilled the number to 20 semi-finalists, our operations team, led by Shelly Garcia, worked to bring the contestants to Dallas. Each artist was asked to provide a list of five arias that they would be prepared to sing in either round. They were invited to arrive early to work with our two superb pianists for the competition: Stephanie Rhodes and Keith Chambers. The week before the competition, Maestro Villaume led a lengthy series of rehearsals with The Dallas Opera Orchestra preparing almost thirty arias to be ready for the finals; these included popular arias that the orchestra had recently performed (e.g. Carmen, Figaro), other standard operas in the repertoire (e.g. Rigoletto, I Pagliacci), and arias from less frequently performed operas such as Gounod’s Sapho, Barber’s Vanessa or Massenet’s Cendrillon.

For the judges’ panel, we had a distinguished group of artistic leaders from across the country including Chair Dr. Brian Zeger; Jonathan Friend, the Artistic Administrator from Metropolitan Opera; Gregory Henkel, Director of Artistic and Music Planning, San Francisco Opera; Andreas Melinat, the Director of Artistic Administration, Lyric Opera of Chicago; and Joshua Winograde, Senior Director of Artistic Planning, Los Angeles Opera. From The Dallas Opera, the judges were Music Director Emmanuel Villaume; Artistic Administrator Ian Derrer and myself.

The semi-final round was held on Saturday, April 18. As is customary for auditions, each singer selected his or her first aria. Following this, the judges conferred briefly to select the second aria from the original list of five arias each contestant submitted.

Evaluating a singer’s performance is a deeply personal process, which is one of the reasons to have multiple judges, although there are clearly aspects of excellent singing that every judge would agree upon (accurate pitch and good diction, for example). I have written about auditions in this column before), but in reviewing my notes from the semi-finals, there were certain common criteria that I used to evaluate each contestant. The first is how well the initial aria fit the singer’s voice and temperament; I am particularly focused on this point, since the singer gets to choose the first aria and therefore has the perfect opportunity to put his or her “best foot” forward. On a related point, I also considered how well the selected repertoire fit my impression of their vocal type, or fach.

Since the Winspear Opera House is known for having excellent acoustics, it was revealing to hear the variation in vocal power and resonance on display in the Saturday semi-finals, and singers who “pushed” their voices unnecessarily also dropped in my rankings. I also listened carefully for the quality and tone color of the sound, which can vary considerably in attractiveness from the lower to middle to top registers; the innate musicality of the performance; the degree to which the sound was supported; the precise control of the pitch; and many other elements. There are also many potential technical faults, too numerous to mention, that will lower a singer’s score, but certainly all judges are sensitive to the quality of diction (which can vary dramatically depending on the language being sung). Above all, though, I am looking for a singer who achieves a memorable performance that integrates great singing, attractive tone color, emotional depth, stage presence, and a clear linkage between “head and heart”—by which I mean that the emotional nuance and vocal shading feels like it is produced internally from the singer, not “layered on top” by a patient vocal coach.

For the semi-finals, we had invited 20 singers, but two had to drop out at the last minute, one due to illness, and another due to a scheduling conflict. In the course of one day, therefore, the judges heard 36 arias. While this may sound like a lot of arias, it is actually a small enough number to allow the judges to consider each performance carefully and thoughtfully; I recently had a meeting with the Head of Casting for a major opera company who had heard 82 singers in two days—164 arias in all!  As he noted, after hearing so many, he was looking for the few whose voice, face and personality left an indelible impression.

At the end of the first day, the judges deliberated to select the six singers who would be advanced to the finals round. We had a truly outstanding team of judges as noted above, and we came to consensus smoothly and collegially. Despite the strong field of semi-finalists, it was relatively easy to identify the top half of the semi-finals pool, which we then had to winnow down to just half-a-dozen singers. For these six, the judges next selected the two arias the singers would perform in the finals, and then we created a performance order to ensure voice type contrasts between consecutive singers (e.g. not putting two baritones in a row) and stylistic contrasts between consecutive arias. Another key aspect of the programming for the finals was the balance of excerpts between well-known operas (e.g. Turandot, Rigoletto, Pagliacci) and lesser-known operas (e.g. Massenet’s Cendrillon and Gounod’s Sapho). We then notified the audience and the media of the names of the singers who had been advanced to the finals, and—very importantly—notified the six finalists the two arias that they would perform the following evening.

For the finalists, Sunday was an especially full day, as each singer had the opportunity to rehearse with Maestro Villaume in the afternoon. By agreement, none of the judges attended the rehearsal with orchestra (other than Emmanuel, of course, who was both conductor and a judge). For the finals, each singer performed their first aria. We then took a brief intermission before the singers performed their second aria. Following the performance, the judges convened to make their decision, and the ballots were counted for the “People’s Choice” award. All six finalists are to be commended for their excellent performances, as they all sang to an extremely high standard. After careful deliberation, the first place winner was selected: baritone Anthony Clark Evans. Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges was awarded second place, and the People’s Choice Award. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko was awarded third place.

The expanded format for The Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition is another step in TDO’s strategy to reinvigorate the company’s programming, support and recognize emerging artists, and expand our impact in the regional and national opera community. All of us at the company were delighted with the number, and caliber, of applicants this year, and how well they reflected major conservatories and young artist programs in the U.S. We also drew over 300 patrons for the finals, which was a strong showing for our North Texas audience. Next year’s competition will be the focus of a major spring gala for the company, and we are already busy preparing for the 2016 Competition.

I hope to see you there!

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Top of Their Game
General Director and CEO Keith Cerny describes the expanded format of The Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, and how impressed he was with the high standard of the applicants, semi-finalists, and winners.
by Keith Cerny

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