Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Montreal: Following the 2015 Montreal International Musical Competition, Richard Turp Reflects on How Such High-Profile Events Figure in a Young Singer's Career

Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Montreal: Following the 2015 Montreal International Musical Competition, Richard Turp Reflects on How Such High-Profile Events Figure in a Young Singer's Career

Article excerpt


Few aspects of the contemporary musical world inspire more debate than vocal competitions. For some, they are an essential right of passage to a successful vocal career. For others, they are ends in themselves, ephemeral vocal marathons that ensure nothing, much less a career. Whatever you think of their role, the fact remains that, with more than 100 international competitions open to them, singers have an astonishing choice of possibilities. Some competitions are held annually, while others are presented every two or three years--as is the case with the Montreal International Musical Competition (MIMC).This rotates every three years between voice, piano and violin. The 2015 edition of MI MC last May was devoted to voice, and, as usual, raised some intriguing questions.

Before going any further, I should say that I was artistic advisor to MIMC this year. Over its two-week course, I found myself compelled to write a series of comments and observations on various aspects of competitions that I believe merit farther discussion. This letter is an attempt to give some coherent voice to these considerations.

MIMC has a fine pedigree (Canadians Measha Brueggergosman, Marianne Fiset and Philippe Sly are among its past winners) and is admirably and most professionally presented. Every three years, it takes on what we might call a vocal, as opposed to purely operatic, vocation. For aspiring singers who want to participate in an international competition, the distinction is important. The first thing to ask is what specific vocation a competition has? For example, if you are invited to compete in Placido Domingo's Operalia competition, you will be expected to sing operatic and zarzuela (Spanish operetta) arias. If you are invited to the Wigmore Hall Competition, you will only perform art song. Several competitions are devoted solely to opera, or even the works of specific composers, while others seek out interpreters of lieder and art song. For singers, it is imperative to find competitions that reflect their particular strengths and values.

In addition, one has to study the competition calendar carefully in order to plan and truly profit from the competition experience. Many music competitions, including the MIMC, belong to the World Federation of International Music Competitions. Among other things, membership ensures that there are no calendar conflicts between the various competitions. But such competitions as Operaba and the renowned Cardiff Singer of the World Competition are not members of the Federation and so can set their own dates. This year showed how crowded the competition schedule has become. Closely following MIMC (within six weeks) came not only Cardiff Singer of the World and Operalia, but also the Federations International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Several singers attempted to do at least two of these competitions, including Montreal finalists Anais Constans (Operalia), Hyesang Park (Operalia) and Keonwoo Kim (Tchaikovsky), while others chose (or were chosen) to take on no more than one.

Almost as important to young singers as a contests vocation is the composition of the jury. Most competitions seek to provide as representative and wide-ranging a jury as possible. In addition to the obligatory representation of a host country, a jury usually features an important international component and seeks to strike a balance between men and women. Juries invariably include professionals from the music and vocal worlds--singers past and present (including opera and art-song specialists), artistic directors, conductors and music administrators. Yet either despite or because of this diversity, consensus is always difficult. One judge once famously remarked that a certain competition was fair because not one of the judges was happy with the final outcome. How a jury votes is always a bone of contention. In an effort to be as objective as possible, MIMC asks its judges not to deliberate and discuss the singers they have heard, but simply to hand in grades for each one of them after each round. …

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