Cher Public

All futures great and small

The Metropolitan Opera yesterday afternoon was an uncommonly cozy place, as the auditorium was packed to the rafters with friends and family members of the nine National Council Audition Finalists. For the finalists I’m sure the experience was nerve-wracking but it was heartwarming to see the huge cheering crowds for each finalist.  

Winner of the 2007 competition Angela Meade was the amiable host and General Manager Peter Gelb reminded the audience of the Auditons’ illustrious past winners. And with that, the competition was on.

There were nine finalists this year and it was pretty obvious by intermission who the winners would be. In fact, I wrote my predictions in my program and except for the tenor Joseph Phillips  Dennis I guessed correctly.

First up was German mezzo Deniz Uzin, who displayed a pleasantly plummy timbre but also choppy phrasing and awkward vowels in “Cruda sorte.” Her “Seguidille” again had almost phonetic diction. There’s talent there, but the package is unfinished.

Next up was Jared Bybee who sang Count Almaviva’s Act Three rant. He would have won had this been a beauty contest—he was almost ridiculously handsome. But the voice was lean and light and seemed to get lost across the footlights. In the second half he sang Rossini’s “Sois immobile” which again demonstrated that this voice as of now is too lightweight to make much of an impact.

Kathryn Henry sang Marguerite’s Jewel Song and “O mio babbino caro.” Her light, fluttery voice that unfortunately didn’t distinguish itself as special from the zillions of lyric sopranos who also sing this sort of thing. The last non-winner was Allegra de Vita, who sang “Tu preparati a morire” from Ariodante and “All’ afflitto è dolce il pianto” from Roberto Devereux. She has a pleasant timbre, but also a bad case of marble mouth. Her presentation was bland and somewhat unengaging.

Phillips Dennis (the tenor) has an aw-shucks persona that made you like him immediately. Unfortunately he seemed to suffer from a bad case of the nerves in his first selection “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” and his top sounded strained. After the intermission his voice warmed up with “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” It’s still a slender, small instrument and of all the winners perhaps the least impressive. But I know many lyric tenors take time for their voices to grow in amplitude and richness.

French mezzo Virginie Verretz was perhaps the “ringer” of the competition, as she’s already been accepted into the Met’s Lindemann program. Nevertheless she justified her place as a winner with her elegant rendition of “Deh per quest istante solo” from La clemenza di tito and a haunting “Must the winter come so soon” fromVanessa. She’s a total package type—gorgeous woman, very plush lyric mezzo, future looks promising indeed.

Marina Costa-Jackson has an unusual soprano for someone so young—it’s definitely a spinto voice, with a sharp edge that one can see slicing through the orchestra in the heavier Verdi roles. Her aria from Queen of Spades showed off the cut of the voice, but for some reason her second selection was “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” which suited neither her voice nor her personality. That aria requires a bit of simpering and Costa-Johnson is not a simperer. But her impressive voice made enough of an impact to win.

The two voices of the competition came however from perhaps the least physically beautiful singers of the competition. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee sang a charming Catalogue Aria but only showed the full power and range of his voice in the aria from Aleko. Though he’s only 25, his voice already has the resonance and richness of a genuine bass-baritone and one can practically see Hans Sachs and Flying Dutchman in his future.

Baritone Reginald Smith was a big, imposing man whose voice really shook the rafters. Make no mistake about it, it’s huge. Ford’s monologue already rocked the house, but it wasn’t until “Oh Lawd, hear my prayer” from The Emperor Jones that we heard Smith’s voice overpower Fabio Luisi’s orchestra in a way that one rarely sees in baritones nowadays. Right now Smith’s instrument is more about brute power and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops, but he has a voice.

While the judges conferred, Meade sang two selections—“Casta diva” and “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana.” Then the winners were announced and the non-winners smiled bravely. There was more basking in success for the winners in the champagne reception afterwards, while the non-winners continued to smile bravely.

But overall this was a heartwarming afternoon for the future of opera. You saw all the family, the friends, the colleagues there in the audience, and you realized how many sacrifices these young singers had to make just to get to this point in their careers. That they’re still willing to make these sacrifices is reason enough to stand up and cheer.

Photo: 2015 National Council Winners Reginald Smith, Jr., Virginie Verrez, Joseph Dennis, Marina Costa-Jackson and Nicholas Brownlee.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Jared Bybee, of course, is the nephew of the wonderful Ariel Bybee.
    See http://segullah.org/spring2008/andme.php
    Her recipes for “Pate Salad” and “La Kilimanjaro (Frozen Chocolate Mousse with Praline)” are here
    http://tinyurl.com/q9kkksr

  • laddie

    Thank you Ivy for the review, but I believe the tenor’s name is Joseph Dennis. I heard him sing in Santa Fe last year; he sang Jacquino in Fidelio.

    • Duvalin

      Actually, you saw Joseph’s twin brother *Joshua Dennis* as Jaquino. *Joseph Dennis” just won the Met and sang the title role in Dr. Sun-Yat Sen at Santa Fe last year. They’re both excellent, excellent singers.

      • laddie

        No kidding! I always thought they were the same person!. Mea culpa. I did see both operas.

  • la vociaccia

    I attended the semi-finals last weekend and felt that Reginald Smith was the only singer to really get the music off the page, and not appear as a competition singer, but as an opera singer, full stop. I’m very pleased to hear that he won

  • parpignol

    very lovely tenor voice, I thought, and the only tenor in the bunch; he and Costa-Jackson (related to Ginger?) both ready to start performing major roles, I think; Reginald Smith has a great instrument; I can’t imagine Brownlee as Sachs or Dutchman; more like Papageno; and the mezzo Uzin, who did not win, also has a very attractive voice, still to be developed; I thought Angela Meade, however, was not in best possible voice, compared to other occasions when I’ve heard her; sounded like not ideal breath control or steady tone. . .

    • steveac10

      She is Ginger’s sister. There is also a 3rd sister pursuing a singing career.

  • armerjacquino

    Not to be *that guy* but I wouldn’t say, on the basis of that photo, that Brownlee is physically unattractive. He looks kind of cute to me.

    • LT

      Cute and attractive are different things.

    • parpignol

      young people, struggling to make it as opera singers? they all looked kind of beautiful--

    • DeepSouthSenior

      Remember the old saying, “At that age you don’t have to be pretty to be pretty.”

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Unless you’re Pretty!

    • vilbastarda

      Couple of years back. I love his nonchalance, it will take him far:

  • Mari

    Thanks, Ivy. We go every year to our local National Council District and Regional competitions. Contestants are not as accomplished as the Finalists of course, but there are always very talented, enthusiastic young singers and it’s a great day of beautiful music. The locations and dates of the District and Regional contests are on the Met web-site.

  • arepo

    Reginald Smith for me, knocked it out of the ballpark. What a sound! I’d love to see him do The Grand Inquisitor.
    Marina Costa-Jackson was the star of the show for me and I happen to think she rendered an absolutely touchingly beautiful rendition of “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”. She’ll be scooped up fast by the Met.

  • arepo

    Angela Meade seemed to me to have lost a mountain of weight. She looked really very much more svelte than she did in the Tucker gala and her face seemed slimmed down. (Maybe it was the wonders of the gown she wore which was in very good taste?)

    • antikitschychick

      Great for her! She has a lovely smile and formidable presence onstage…I hope she will stay healthy and I wish her much success…and I hope she gets to sing Traviata sometime in the near future…think that could be her best role aside from Norma.

      • armerjacquino

        Vocally, maybe. But she would really need to engage more with her fellow performers for Violetta. She does have a tendency to sing in a bubble, and that really won’t cut it for that part.

        • antikitschychick

          I’ve never seen her live in a staged opera/production so I can’t speak to how she engages with her fellow performers, though I suspect you are right…think her acting is still a work in progress…I honestly just want to hear her sing the part because I think it’d be amazing…but this role requires a lot of vocal as well as physical acting which may be challenging for her but I think she’d bring a unique interpretation to it and vocally speaking her voice is made for the part. I know she sang it for the first time some months ago but the performance didn’t make its way to Youtube.

          • I think Angela Meade would make a very poor Violetta for reasons that have nothing to do with her physique. Her singing is very “strong” and she favors very loud attacks on notes. I doubt she’ll be able to scale her singing style enough to suggest (vocally) the frailty of a Violetta.

            • antikitschychick

              Well I havent heard her live so Ill take your word for it, but isn’t pianissimo singing a known trademark of her singing style as well? Her tone is also on the lighter side imo and she doesnt artificially darken or cover…and she has sung Lucia which requires delicate singing as well…she has the qualities I think so if it’s more a question of style then she would just have to make adjustments to suit the role…but perhaps you’re right. I’m really not sure but I wanted to put it out there. Hopefully she’ll sing it again soon and we’ll find out.

            • Anti: I think Meade is good at using pianissimi for effects but overall, her singing isn’t very delicate.

        • Signor Bruschino

          I have been trying for the last few years as to why Angela Meade leaves me a bit cold and armerjacquino, you totally hit it on the head. She does sing as if she is in another world, or in a recital rather than performance. I have said previously that if she took a year off and travelled and lived her life (rather than do ’60 competitions’ and then segue into a career) it may improve her performance- i know that sounds a bit cold, but sometimes life experience can bring a bloom to a performance that I think is lacking.

        • mjmacmtenor

          Normally, I’ld agree with you, but I found her Mistress Ford in Falstaff to be an exception. She showed a lot of spark (that I would not have expected) and interacted well with her fellow wives and Falstaff. Very engaging performance! Maybe comedy (or this particular production) brings out a part of her personality that does not always come through in more serious roles.

          • Milady DeWinter

            I agree with you mjma -- Meade’s Mistress Ford was quite the best thing I’ve seen her do to date, and vocally, she was so at ease. Lately I hear a lot of “stuff” (to be technical) going on in mid-voice before she settles in. Like her Elvira the other night -- the “Ernani involami” was sort of noisy and awful, excepting the big swings up to high C; after that trial was over she was very fine.

            • mjmacmtenor

              And although Mistress Ford is not a showy role vocally, it is NO easy sing (especially in the ensembles). Maybe Meade needs the “relaxation” of a comic role to do her best vocally and dramatically. In her concert performances, she does exhibit avery natural “joy of singing”. Perhaps she is more at ease being like herself than trying to inhabit a very differnt type of character.

  • Flora del Rio Grande

    Miss Ivy: I rather agree with you, but I’d go farther on A.M. as Violetta -- not to do. Obviously, when she catches a glance of herself in the mirror, and V. sings, “qual pallor” (sp?), well . . . But more
    importantly, I have heard in recent years her top
    register become increasingly effortful and at times shrill. That will not do for V. And the personality — don’t you think it is a bit ‘off’ for Violetta? Let
    her stay with spinto Verdi and Bellini … it’s a great repertory and as long as it works for her she should do it. She is not going to be Rosa Ponselle, but these days you take what you can get.
    BTW, in the 23 March New Yorker, Mr Stewart’s long very conceived piece on Gelb/Met seems not only quite well written and interesting, but it could be an important document in resolution of the so-called Gelb ‘problem’ — and as the article shows he is a big big spender and rather likely to stay that way. His incursion into the Met endowment fund is a real shocker. Time for action. And that permissive board! Bill Morris surprised me; I thought he was more of a realist than shown here; his wife Susan, chairman of the Santa Fe Opera certainly has done a fine job there.
    Cheerio from the hot hot desert, Flora del Rio Grande

    • I agree with you. I don’t hear a Violetta in this voice. It’s very muscled and loud.

      • Niel Rishoi

        Ivy, I was just going to post that clip. Go to 1:40 and hear her entry -- holy tremolo.

      • antikitschychick

        hmm, well am listening now (thanks for posting it btw!) and while I do hear some glottal attacks that I had not heard from her before and a slightly wider vibrato I don’t hear a tremolo (at least not from her)…I think she does artificially engorge the sound somewhat to try add gravitas and more core to the voice, but overall and at least on recording her voice sounds light to me for this rep (kind of fluttery in spots)…she does sound secure, but I think she’s had to make adjustments to fit her voice into this rep; I don’t think it’s a natural fit…I think she’s better suited to higher-lying bel canto roles with more coloratura and Mozart as well…

        and I hear plenty of delicate and fresh-sounding singing in this clip, especially at 2:49, 5:19 and beyond;

        also…

        This entire aria is pretty much an exercise in delicate & sustained legato singing imho (though I think it lies a tad low for her tessitura-wise; not that she can’t reach the notes but it doesn’t capitalize on the best part of her range like a role like Norma and Traviata would)…but idk perhaps I am just not listening for the same things as ya’ll and of course I’ve yet to hear her live.

        • mjmacmtenor

          I think it also lies in the balance of stimm and kunst. Both Violetta and Norma are great roles that require both. However, a Norma can be a success with lots of stimm and less kunst. A lot of the kunst can be achieved through a beautiful and expressive use of the voice alone. On the other hand, a Violetta must have kunst. Stimm is essential, but without kunst, the part does not “land”. Interesting enough, Sutherland, one of the great stimm divas, was a huge success as Norma, but much less so as Violetta. She had the voice and all the notes, but something was lacking.

          • Lady Abbado

            mjmacmtenor: can you define for ignorants like me “stimm” and “kunst”? Thanks in advance…

            • Straussmonster

              short version:

              stimm=voice=the quality of the instrument itself, a beautiful voice, and the ability to sing all those notes

              kunst=art=knowing what to DO with said voice, interpretive skills, bringing text and character to life with the voice

            • mjmacmtenor

              Sorry for the assumption. “Stimm” refers to voice and musicality. Beautiful voice, phrasing, etc. “Kunst” refer to artistry -- acting, interpretation (both musical/vocal and physical). Of course, all stimm divas convey a lot of artistry (“Kunst”) in their vocal phrasing, musical interprestation, and even just basic sound -- Sutherland, L. Price, Bjoerling (divo). And kunst divas -- Olivero, Scotto -- have to have a lot of stimm in order to interpret and be artistic musically. Flagstad was basically a stimm Wagnerian while Moedl was more kunst. All singer have both, it is more a matter of which is most striking (or best developed, or more natural to the singer). Callas was basically a kunst diva with a LOT of stimm on her best days. Certain roles call for one more than the other. Bel canto tends to be more stimm by nature, but many dramatic bel canto roles can be more kunst. Some roles can accomdate both types -- there can be stimm Mimis (de los Angeles) and kunst Mimis (Scotto). For the best discussion of this topic (and a GREAT read) look for Ethan Mordden’s book on opera -- Demented.

            • Lady Abbado

              Thanks; just ordered “Demented” (1 cent the book; 6.49 dollars the shipping) :)

          • antikitschychick

            very true mjmacmtenor and I definitely think she is a stimm diva, although she’s a fine musician and has a distinctive instrument, but it’s hard to say at thi point that she has really made her mark on the roles she sings, with the exceptions of Ernani and Norma. I agree that Sutherland was a stimm diva so under that analysis you may be right about Violetta since Angela certainly models herself on Sutherland, even though their voices are very different.

            Re the stimm vs kunst categories: I also think kunst requires more “dirty” or a less clean approach to singing; more gutteral, immediate and theatrical, whereas the stimm approach is more technically “correct” in the traditional sense. At least that’s my understanding of it, though I am not as knowledgeable about these categorizations as some of my fellow posters.

            • mjmacmtenor

              It’s the age old question. Would you sacrifice beauty of tone for dramatic truth or effect? For a kunst, the drama would always trump pure beauty. A stimm would always be expressive, but never at the expense of a beautiful tone. It’s sort of romanticism (kunst) vs. classicism (stimm). When asked about this question, Sills felt that you could not always make a “pretty” sound -- she was referring to a line in Roberto Devereux about “don’t incur the rath of the daughter of the terrible Henry VIII” (or something like that). In temperament, Sills had kunst, but she had the voice of a stimm, if she limited herself to lyric roles. Her search for kunst took her to roles that challenged her drammatically but also challenged her lyric based instrument.

          • antikitschychick

            It really is the age-ld question, and it’s one that can only be really made by the best artists who have the ability to choose one over the other; Sills certainly made her choice and it helped her cement her place as one of the greatest interpreters of many roles, even if she did push her voice right to or beyond its limits.

            • mjmacmtenor

              She said she would rather have 10 years like Callas than 20+ years like anyone else. I saw her on stage live later in her career (Merry Widow, Il Turco in Italia) and later met her briefly when I worked as a NYCO super on LA while she was General Manager making her backstage rounds before a performance. Her greatest vehicles IMHO were where she could balance the two -- Manon, Baby Doe, Elisabetta. Wish she had taken up Thais a few years earlier, but she needed the clout that stardom brings to get it produced.

          • antikitschychick

            age *old question. Sorry for the typo.

          • antikitschychick

            sorry meant to say it’s a choice that can only really be made by the best artists who have the ability to choose one over the other without compromising the artistic product. Didn’t quite finish my train of thought before.

          • antikitschychick

            “She said she would rather have 10 years like Callas than 20+ years like anyone else.”

            Fascinating. Personally, I happen to think she made the right choice. Just look at AN and how much more satisfying her performances are now because she has chosen to stretch herself. I find that artists who really want to serve the music, instead of have the music serve them generally tend to take risks at the expense of over-burdening themselves but this is what leads to dramatic truth as you say.

    • armerjacquino

      Obviously, when she catches a glance of herself in the mirror, and V. sings, “qual pallor” (sp?), well . . .

      There are good arguments why Meade wouldn’t be an ideal physical fit for Violetta, but that isn’t one of them. Unless you’re somehow suggesting that fat people can’t go pale.

      • Flora del Rio Grande

        Jacqui: Big people can go pale, but advanced cases of tuberculosis are rarely if ever obese. It really is a matter of how much verisimilitude you want. If I am not mistaken the premiere performance of La traviata was something of a flop because the leading soprano was quite hefty. By the historic accounts I have read the audience laughed and left the show unconvinced. Soon that changed, of course.

  • arepo

    I don’t know how you train a person to become a fine actor if it just isn’t part of their persona. (can you say Vargas?)
    Meade has a beautiful voice but she seems “detached” to me as a performer. For that reason, a Violetta would not seem a good fit.

  • levi

    Ivy Lin this is a new low, even for you! These nine incredibly talented, albeit young singers just accomplished something that you never have nor will -- they stood on the Metropolitan Opera stage and poured their hearts out. In your typical callous fashion you disgustingly judged them (even physically I might add, how dare you!!!). You really are POISONOUS

    • Um levi I don’t think you understand how the world works. This was not a private voice lesson. This was not a closed audition. This was not even public a master class. This was a paid performance in front of a ticket buying audience. So everyone had every right to judge their vocal performance. If this is “disgusting” then I’d hate to think of your reaction to something really disgusting, like picking boogers and wiping them on the seat rests.

      • laddie

        You are too kind to give any attention at all to this troll.

    • la vociaccia

      You are aware that the New York Times also reviewed the auditions (and gave criticisms of the singers), right? It’s not like Ivy slipped into an undergraduate studio recital -- this was a public concert, and has been for the past 56 years.

      • chicagoing

        I thought it was interesting to read in the coverage that Peter Gelb pointed out that Patricia Racette was a notable singer who was not a previous winner of the National Council Auditions.

        • la vociaccia

          Quite a number of singers avoid the competition circuit altogether if they can. The only thing guaranteed with a competition win is prize money -- if you flip through the Met archives a solid majority of top prize winners are people who never had a subsequent career. Being an impressive competition singer and being a successful opera singer require separate skills.

          • chicagoing

            In light of your observation I think it is notable that Angela Meade’s class is comprised of so many singers who seem to be well on their way to successul careers (Fabiano, Barton, Shrader etc.) Was the director of the Audition just lucky to have picked such a strong class to cover in her documentary or did their inclusion in the film help stoke their careers?

            • la vociaccia

              That was a very lucky year- I don’t know how much the inclusion in the film made a difference -- the film was released two years after the auditions and by that point most of the singers were already on the rise.

            • Yeah, it was a remarkably good year. Even Ryan McKinney, who did not win, has a solid career going.

          • DeepSouthSenior

            The subsequent careers of competition winners and losers is similar to academic performance. Some students are astounding on tests but close to inept out in the “real world” -- and vice-versa. Some are superior at both, others miserable failures. That’s just life. You can’t predict it, and the certainties are few compared to the surprises.