Young Singers Must Keep Their Eyes on the Prizes When Launching Opera Careers

Money isn’t the only boon that competitions provide; the cachet of winning a big prize can prove invaluable in raising a young performer’s profile in a crowded field.

A row of formally dressed men and women stand on a stage in front of a red curtain
(left to right) Daniel Espinal, Meridian Prall, Emily Richter, Lydia Grindatto and Navasard Hakobyan. Karen Almond/MetOpera

Opera as bloodsport? Well, not exactly, but most ambitious young opera singers will spend much of their twenties vying for cash in singing competitions worldwide. The Metropolitan Opera Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious, held its Grand Finals Concert on Sunday, and each of its five deserving winners took home $20,000.

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Such contests have been around for centuries. Every opera lover will know Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, whose medieval denouement features two men competing for the right to marry the heroine. The complete title of another work by the same composer is Tannhaüser und der Sãngerkrieg auf Wartburg which means “…and the Singing Contest at Wartburg,” the crucial event when the title character disgraces himself by blaspheming. Even these days participants can still experience life-changing effects.

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions were first held in 1954, and its prize winners include a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of top singers from Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman and Frederica Von Stade to Renée Fleming and Ben Heppner to Lawrence Brownlee, Lisette Oropesa and Nadine Sierra. Mezzo-soprano (and past winner) Denyce Graves hosted the afternoon and informed the audience that over the past year, some 1,500 singers between the ages of twenty and thirty submitted videotaped samples. From that pool, 900 participated in the long and complex audition process carried out in thirty-seven districts from eleven regions across the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico.

A week before the Grand Finals, nineteen semifinalists performed for the very first time on the Met stage. The contrasts between the semis and the finals were marked. For Monday’s first round, singers provided a list of four selections they were prepared to sing. All began with an aria of their own choosing, and then the team of six judges let them know which of the remaining three it wanted to hear. Singers briefly left the stage to collect themselves before returning to offer their second aria. Following thirty-eight arias in just over four hours, the judges deliberated and then announced the ten (sometimes surprising) finalists.

Other than the judges, only a small audience seated in the Grand Tier heard these performers accompanied at the piano by the extraordinarily accomplished pair of Lachlan Glen and Adam Nielsen, who effortlessly switched between Mozart and Donizetti, Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber.

Since the Grand Finals Concerts began in 1999, the public has been invited to root for their favorites and second-guess the judges. Those who heard the semifinals were likely satisfied with the ten who moved on to the finals, although I understand that some like me were surprised that commendable tenor Michael Butler who gracefully performed “Salut demeure” from Faust and “Ich baue ganz,” Belmonte’s bravura aria from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, wasn’t included. 

Sunday’s Finals before a packed audience featured three sopranos, two mezzos, four tenors and one baritone performing their pair of arias, this time with the Met Orchestra smoothly conducted by Evan Rogister. One puzzled over some of the strategic choices made by the finalists: four sang the arias with which they had won the semis, while five others went with one “new” selection, and soprano Tessa McQueen offered two we hadn’t previously heard. Three of the five eventual finalists—Emily Richter, Meridian Prall and Daniel Espinal—stuck to their winning combination, but Lydia Grindatto’s move from Meyerbeer to Tchaikovsky was a canny change. While Navasard Hakobyan, too, proved a winner, his Lucia di Lammermoor aria on Monday impressed me far more than his stentorian Faust excerpt Sunday afternoon.

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The finalists’ musical choices stuck with safely conservative 19th- and early 20th-century competition favorites with just a few from rarely heard operas. It’s been seventy-five years since the Met performed Charpentier’s Louise, but Richter’s haunting “Depuis le jour” made me wonder if it wasn’t due for a revival. Prall’s opulent haunting Sapho aria made me want to hear more of the Gounod opera, while Eric Taylor’s muscular selection from Le Villi suggested another Puccini work that the Met might consider. Otherwise, there were just three 18th-century selections (Handel and Mozart), while the most recent music came from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which premiered almost 70 years ago.

I’ve been told that judges must balance current achievement with potential for the future when evaluating competitors, and at least one was ready for prime time. Grindatto won the choice spot of closing both halves of the Finals with confidently dramatic diva performances of Tatyana’s “Letter Scene” from Eugene Onegin and La Traviata’s first-act scena. Both Prell and Richter sang their Mozart arias radiantly, but their bland characterizations lacked specificity, while Hakobyan’s stiffness was surprising given how many competition prizes he’s won recently. At just twenty-four, Espinal could be a bit gauche, but his eager enthusiasm and suave musicality won over everyone.

While $150,000 was awarded to Sunday’s ten finalists at the Met, that figure represents just a fraction of the enviably large pot of cash available to the most intrepid competitors. A day after the Met event, the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition announced that its twenty-three finalists had won over $72,000, with the top prize of $15,000 going to Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, an accomplished countertenor who won $12,000 just last year from the George and Nora London Foundation, following his 2017 top finish at Met!

Angela Meade, who is featured along with Jamie Barton and Michael Fabiano, in The Audition, a fascinating documentary about the 2007 Met finals, participated in an astonishing fifty-seven competitions from which she reportedly collected several hundred thousand dollars on her way to a Met debut as Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani in 2008 at the age of thirty-one.

 

For the winners, these ample funds likely cover the enormous costs involved in becoming a successful opera singer. Voice lessons can cost anywhere from $100 to $200 per hour, with some top teachers charging as much as $400; necessary coachings run somewhat less. Then there are the travel expenses one must pay to take part in myriad auditions for young artist programs and competitions.

When the Metropolitan National Council Auditions began, there were no young artist programs for developing singers, but now there are many connected to opera companies both large and small, including San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center and Houston’s Butler Studio. Though there is no official link between the Laffont Competition and the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, several Laffont finalists have quickly transitioned into the Lindemann.

Ryan Speedo Green, Sunday’s special guest, made the transition from the Laffont to the Lindemann to leading roles at the Met. While the judges conferred, he firmly established his local Wagner credentials with a bold performance of “Die Frist ist um,” the Dutchman’s great monologue from Der Fliegende Hollãnder. Once a performer has risen above competitions but is not yet a superstar, there are the Met’s Beverly Sills Award and the Richard Tucker Award. Both pay out $50,000, and Green was the lucky winner of the former for 2023.

Money isn’t the only boon that competitions provide; the cachet of winning a big prize can prove invaluable in raising a young performer’s profile in a crowded field. The prime international equivalents to the Laffont are the yearly Operalia started by Placido Domingo and BBC’s biannual Cardiff Singer of the World. Both were crucial in launching the careers of artists from Karita Mattila, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel to sonya yoncheva and Lise Davidsen. But there are many other contests, including some quite narrowly focused ones like the Innsbruck Festival’s Cesti Competition which offers not only prize money, but engagements that include a role in its next year’s festival opera, plus an offer of management.

Next year’s crop of eager Laffont contestants must already be hard at work on the audition videos due in September when this year’s Operalia takes place in Mumbai. Cardiff Singer of the World takes 2024 off and returns in June 2025.

Young Singers Must Keep Their Eyes on the Prizes When Launching Opera Careers