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“Operatic Idol”: Guatemalan Tenor and American Soprano Win the “Olympics of Opera”

Ed Rampell: Move over American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, Survivor and America’s Got Talent: Operalia, arguably the world’s ultimate singing competition, concluded August 30 at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Operatic Idol

Operalia 2014 winners: Mario Chang and Rachel Willis-Sorensen (Photo: Craig Mathews)

Move over American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, Survivor and America’s Got Talent: Operalia, arguably the world’s ultimate singing competition, concluded August 30 at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The greatest living tenor/baritone, Plácido Domingo, conducted the LA Opera Orchestra during Operalia, which he began in 1993 to encourage youth to pursue careers in opera. This year more than 1,000 aspiring young opera singers from around the globe applied to compete in the 22nd edition of Operalia, which Domingo calls “the Olympics of Opera.” Forty applicants who’d submitted their work digitally were chosen and flown to compete in person in August at LA Opera, where the 13 surviving contestants who hadn’t been voted off the island -- I mean “opera” -- faced off in the competition’s final round before a live audience.

The Aug. 30th sing-off and awards ceremony took almost four hours, and it was streamed live for the first time on Medici.tv. Shortly after 7:oo p.m. it was time to “Let the games begin!” As each singer took the stage information including his/her name, type of singer, name of the piece he/she was performing, the opera it was from plus the work’s composer, followed by a mood-setting graphic, were projected onto the Chandler’s wall. Unlike during LA Opera performances per se, supertitles translating lyrics were not projected overhead. The international contingent of finalists ranged in age from 26 to 31 and came from China, France, Morocco, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain, America and Guatemala. They sang selections by Wagner, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Händel and other composers in the Opera category. A quintet of these competitors also particpated in the Zarazuela category (Domingo’s parents were singers of Zarazuela, a traditional Spanish form of operetta).

Some of the contenders were content to merely sing, while others also acted their parts out, as if they were performing in actual operas (which, after all, involves elements of theater, as well as music). Clad in a swanky purplish/maroon-ish gown with straps, the angelic Mariangela Sicilia, a 28-year-old soprano from Italy, was a good example of this thespian aspect. She brought life to “Amour ranime mon courage”, the “Poison Aria” from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, fervently gesturing. Tenor Mario Chang also brought his acting skills to bear on his rendition of “Ella mi fu rapita!” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, which the Duke sings when he’s anxious that Gilda has vanished.

The 28-year-old Guatemalan was clearly a favorite with the 14-person jury as the tuxedo-clad Chang went on to win the first prize of $30,000 and The Don Placido Domingo, Sr., Zarzuela Prize of $10,000, as well as the Audience Prize -- a Rolex watch. (The Swiss watchmaker is Operalia’s Presenting Sponsor.) In the female categories 30-year-old American Rachel Willis-Sørensen was also a multiple winner: The bright red gown-garbed zaftig soprano scored the first prize of $30,000, the Birgit Nilsson Prize (awarded for Wagner/Strauss repertoire -- she sang “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser) plus the Pepita Embil Domingo Zarzuela Prize of $10,000. Sicilia tied with French soprano Anaïs Constans to win the third prize of $10,000. Amusingly, there was also a tie among the males in this category, with preternaturally high pitched countertenors John Holiday, an African American, and Russian Andrey Nemzer receiving equal number of votes. Domingo joked onstage as he handed out the plaques, “consoling” tie-winners for whom a prize was not available at the moment not to worry, as they’d get their trophy soon.

Operatic Idol

The jury consisted largely of artistic and administrative personnel from opera houses around the world, such as Jonathan Friend, Artistic Administrator of Manhattan’s renowned Metropolitan Opera. Opera News’ Editor-in-Chief F. Paul Driscoll also sat on the jury, as did Plácido’s wife, Marta Domingo -- who is the director and designer of LA Op’s upcoming production of La Traviata -- and James Conlon, LA Opera’s Music Director. During the awards ceremony the jurors sat onstage. This was the third time Operalia was held in Los Angeles, which is tied with Paris as the city that has hosted the global competition most often. Next year, Operalia is scheduled to take place in London.

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Operatic Idol

Placido Domingo (right) with previous Operalia winners: tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz (2005) and soprano Janal Brugger (2012) Photo: Mathew Craig

Interestingly, none of the jurists are singers (although earlier in her career Ms. Domingo had been a promising soprano), which Plácido explained is because of “competing egos” performers could bring to bear on the voting process, with vocalists casting their ballots not solely on merit but by taking into consideration whether or not one might be vying for roles with this or that winner. Indeed, many Operalia winners, such as ​ American operatic lyric-coloratura mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, have gone on to promising careers, especially given the fact that many of the strategically chosen jury members are in a position to hire talents for their opera companies. Getting cast to perform professionally can be a far more valuable prize than the contest’s cash awards. This is all part of Domingo’s calculating plan to ensure that opera -- an art form that began around 1600 and currently facing many challenges -- continues to flourish around the world in the 21st century.

(To spread the medium’s popularity, Operalia might want to consider spinning off into a Survivor-style reality TV show and/or American Idol-like television talent competition series. I’d watch Plácido Domingo over Jeff Probst, Howard Stern or Simon Cowell any day! Operatic Idol anyone?)

In any case, Operalia is generating interest among audiences, too. Engrossed in and enchanted by Operalia’s wide spectrum of performances -- which, incidentally, also served to provide a broad introduction to and overview of opera -- the youthful Maja Gartmann of the Santa Monica-based office of Switzerland Tourism gushed: “The next generation of Pavarottis and Domingos has arrived!”

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

For more Operalia info see: http://www.operaliacompetition.org/. To view Operalia’s final round see: http://www.medici.tv/#/operalia-2014-final-round-los-angeles-opera-placido-domingo. Verdi’s La Traviata starring Plácido Domingo opens the LA Opera season on Sept. 13 at LA Opera at, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.