Met’s fascinating documentary wins “The Audition”
A valuable group of films documenting the backstage of classical music is part of the legacy of the media explosion from the eighties and early nineties. During those “golden times,” such features were common features on PBS and two of the most conspicuous names — responsible for Horowitz the Last Romantic, Baroque Duet, and Soldiers of Music — were producer and director Susan Froemke and Peter Gelb, today General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
After a long hiatus, this trend makes a timely comeback thanks to Gelb’s initiative, starring the Met and the opera stars of the future. This Sunday April 19th, as grand-finale for the Live in HD series the Met unveils The Audition, a feature-length documentary directed by Froemke which follows the participants in the last round of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, offering a fascinating – and welcome glimpse into the world of opera.
Designed to discover promising young singers and assist in the development of their careers, the Met Council Audition program concludes with national finals held on the stage of the Met. During that final concert with the Metropolitan Orchestra, the jury awards each of the five or six singers a $15,000 prize. Many previous winners belong to the current Met roster, including Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe, Nathan Gunn and Deborah Voigt. The waving flag of Voigt as Richard Strauss’s Helena in the Met plaza presents an encouraging welcome to the finalists as they enter Lincoln Center.
The film follows the last week of the competition, as judges narrow the singers from twenty-two to eleven finalists, giving plenty of insight not only on the participants but also on the judges, coaches and conductor Marco Armiliato. From a cinematic point of view, it bears a refreshing, if conventional stamp that can stand the test of time as an historical document, not merely a flashy promotional tool.
The Audition chronicles the anguishes and pressures of these young opera singers as they try to make it to the finals with remarkable artistry and professionalism. From the initial awe confronting the vastness of the Met to the last days concentrating on the handful of chosen artists, director Froemke builds the suspense to a nerve-wracking level.
There is the beautiful Icelandic Dísella Làrusdóttir, who is unhappy with her performance, the talented Kiera Duffy a sort of American Natalie Dessay-to-be, and the imposing soprano Angela Meade – who recently made a triumphant Met debut on short notice. Three very different tenors grab much attention: the passionate 22-year-old Michael Fabiano, 25-year-old matinee-idol-handsome Alex Shrader and the African-American, Ryan Smith who, in spite of little training, at the age of 30 pursues his dream of becoming an opera singer. Watching the film, it is impossible not to pick a favorite. During the final instances, when it feels more like a sporting event, it is clear that The Audition works as pure entertainment too: “Four years of work for only four minutes” as one fellow says.
The strong emotions are always present, yet Froemke never over-indulges, and is smart enough to just follow the participants. Moments of intense beauty – like one showing a soprano alone on stage trying to relax, in a light reminiscent of a John Singer Sargent painting – contrasts with others of evident despair, grinding anxiety or exultant happiness. A moving embrace backstage after one audition between coach and singer poignantly captures the strong bond between an artist and important backstage people that audiences usually miss.
A significant statement aiming to reach different audiences, The Audition will unquestionably catch the interest of music fans, and provide an eye opener to students by showing an inspiring view of the rigors and rewards of such an “eccentric” career.
The intention is to conquer new spectators while illustrating why the new breed of opera singers need more visual and acting requirements than before. In the end, as Gelb and Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins judiciously state, the opera singer is the most exposed artistic creature with an instrument of only two tiny chords that are expected to fill a huge space without microphones.
Presented by former Met winner Renée Fleming, the movie-theater event ends with the soprano hosting a candid panel discussion with fellow winners Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson. While the three artists reminisce about their own past participation and experience in the competition, they provide some of the most trenchant comments of the occasion, as with Graham’s simple advice “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” They also remark on the dangers of over-intellectualizing and consequent “analysis by paralysis” to the unhealthy side of “competing with colleagues instead of with yourself” as Hampson wisely observes.
Beyond all possible hype and trends, showing how difficult it is to make it today as an opera singer – when every moment of existence could be taped for posterity or YouTube consumption – The Audition succeeds in conveying a depiction of this magical process. The opening credits display an apt text from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment: “This sweet dream of success troubles my mind and my heart.” That dilemma is reflected in a documentary that is fascinating and inspiring as well as a learning experience that encourages respect and admiration for young artists.
The Audition will be shown in the U.S. on April 19 at 3pm, EST. The film will also be screened in Canada on June 6 at 1pm ET and on June 15 at 7pm ET. For tickets, locations, and more information, visit metopera.org/hdlive.
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Thu Apr 16, 2009
at 12:31 pm