Opera Theater sings praises of voice competition

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Competitions haven't always been a central part of musical life, particularly in opera. Nowadays, they can be critical to starting a career.

There's plenty of drama in the final rounds of competitions as singers fight their nerves and strive to sing the best they ever have. That's why the public-performance portions of competitions can be exciting for audiences.

The final rounds of the 2013 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition take place Nov. 2 and 3 in Oakland and are open to the public. Two rounds of semi-finals are on Nov. 2, the finals on Nov. 3.

The competition is administered by Opera Theater and named for its founder. The winners of the first two years of the Miller competition — countertenor Andrey Nemzer and tenor Juan Jose de Leon — already have contracts with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The top three winners of the 2013 competition will receive cash prizes totaling $9,000 and an invitation to perform at Opera Theater's Summerfest 2014.

This year, the competition received 183 applicants from nine countries, who sent information, a photo and three audio recordings of complete arias. One of the arias was required to be in English because Opera Theater is committed to performing opera in English.

Competition director Laura Very and Opera Theater artistic director Jonathan Eaton each listened to all the recordings and assigned a numerical score.

“The general consensus is that the quality goes up each year,” says Very, who wasn't involved with the competition in 2012. “The stature of the competition draws finer and finer singers. The word is getting around.”

With the singers selected for the semi-finals, Very and Eaton step aside.

“It's the fairest thing to do,” she says. “Now, I'm focused on the set up and running the competition smoothly. This year, we offered limited homestays for the singers. It's one thing when kids go to New York (for a competition because they're likely to) have friends they met at a summer festival. But they may not have people here. We've been able to get nine into homes. It removes a financial burden. I think it might have helped a few more to arrive for the competition.”

Miller, who is one of the judges for the final rounds, sang hundreds of performances over a 25-year career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Some of those performances have been issued by Sony Classical, such as a 1955 “The Tales of Hoffmann” conducted by Pierre Monteux. She also made recordings still available on Sony of Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms with the legendary conductor and Mahler disciple Bruno Walter.

The operatic world was different in many ways in Miller's heyday, when voice competitions were not part of the equations.

“Of course, I auditioned for the Met. (General director) Rudolf Bing actually paid for me to come from London after I had my first child,” she recalls.

Bing had heard about Miller from Germans in the opera business and auditioned her in Munich.

“When he sent a telegram offering a contract, I was pregnant, so I couldn't accept it,” she says. “It was a couple of months later, after my son, Wesley, was born, that he sent another telegram saying, ‘Can you come?' That was opportunity knocking twice.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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