Auditioning is a constant in the life of an aspiring opera singer, and singing well under those nail-biting conditions can open doors to the next level, whether that’s getting another audition, the attention of an influential manager, or getting hired to sing a coveted role.
In the case of one prestigious auditioning opportunity—the George London Foundation Awards Competition—the reward is money, to encourage singers as they negotiate the protracted period that it often takes to become established in the opera field. This week I stopped in at the Morgan Library in Manhattan for a preliminary round, one of three days leading up to the finals on Thursday. Six winners receive $10,000 apiece, another six receive $1,000, and remaining finalists receive $500 honorable mentions. The former winners list of this competition, established in 1971 by the bass-baritone George London, reads like a who’s who of opera, and includes names like Dawn Upshaw, Renée Fleming, Matthew Polenzani, and Bejun Mehta. The number of applicants to the competition spiked this year to 300, up from 180 last year.
It’s a strange scene at competitions. Opera is considered one of the most expressive art forms, but an opera competition is more like a final exam, not like an evening at an opera house. The beautiful red seats of Gilder Lehrman Hall on this occasion were empty except for six judges. The judges sat before a table with just water and an electric pencil sharpener on it. There was no applause—the main sound was the scratching of pencils by the six judges. Each audition ended with polite “thank you”s from the judges.
The singers I heard ranged in age from early twenties to early thirties and were scheduled at ten-minute intervals. These singers had to convince the judges in the space of two arias that they had a voice that deserves to be heard in the world’s largest opera houses. Consequently, a number of the singers projected at ear-shattering levels for this intimate hall. The judges—mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, tenor George Shirley, stage director Bruce Donnell, broadcast journalist Ernst Ludwig Gausmann, former Metropolitan Opera administrator Alfred F. Hubay, and George London Foundation president Nora London—were in no way intimidating, but given the stakes one has to assume there were surely plenty of nerves to go around. For the most part, the candidates looked amazingly well composed and only showed signs of strain when speaking to the judges, not when singing. From all appearances, the recommended attire when performing at such an event is black tea-length dresses and pumps for women (with the occasional long gown or dress in another color), and grey or black suits for the men, with or without tie.
The voices came in many more colors than the gowns and suits. And if you love good singing, it’s always exciting to hear a group of young singers and hope you may be about to hear, say, the next Beverly Sills. There were tenors of the Florestan/Peter Grimes type, sopranos headed for Strauss and Wagner, sopranos singing freakishly high notes from La Sonnambula, and baritones who sang and acted Papageno’s suicide aria. There was Juliet’s waltz, “Ich baue ganz” from Entführung and “Contenta quest’alma” from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. These preliminary rounds are privately conducted, presumably to protect young singers who need more time to work on their technique before being ready to sing before an audience as well as six judges. There were a few who needed more time, and some who are pretty much ready for prime time.
The finals of this competition, on April 3 at 4 p.m., are a chance to hear some of the best of this year’s crop of North American singers. They are free and open to the public, but you must call to reserve a ticket (212-956-2809). At the end of the finals, winners will be announced.