Met’s fascinating documentary wins “The Audition”

By Sebastian Spreng

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 From a cinematic point of view, it bears a refreshing, if conventional stamp that can stand the test of time as an historical document, not merely a flashy promotional tool.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

Posted in Uncategorized

20 Responses to “Met’s fascinating documentary wins “The Audition””

  1. Posted Apr 19, 2009 at 6:01 pm by Rita A. Lehr

    Just saw it at a local move, and thought it was fabulous.

    I knew Angela Meade was a winner, if that was the lady who sang from Norma. She just had it.

    Rita Lehr in Baltimore, MD

  2. Posted Apr 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm by Dr. R. Gary Heikkila

    I would be deeply grateful if you might advise as to how I may contact Alex Shrader who was so wonderful in “The Audition”?
    Yours faithfully,
    Dr. R. Gary Heikkila

  3. Posted Apr 20, 2009 at 7:17 am by Mitnick

    Tenors Shrader and Fabiano were absolutely worth the price of admission ticket. Here are two young tenors, as different as they could be, who blew me away. I found the film very moving, exciting, as well as an operatic feast for those who love opera. Not to be missed by anyone interested in opera.

  4. Posted Apr 20, 2009 at 4:58 pm by Paul Smith

    Ryan was my son, did a great job, RIP, Dad…

  5. Posted Apr 21, 2009 at 2:04 pm by ELOISE BOUYE


  6. Posted Apr 26, 2009 at 10:29 pm by Esther C. Williams

    I loved the film and all the drama associated with it. I was especially moved by Ryan Smith and his transformation on the Met stage on that Sunday! He really came into his own! I would really like to tell his family how moved I was by their son, his graciousness in congratulating the other contestants. I thank Our Heavenly Father that Ryan got to realize his dream. How do I go about purchasing this memorable DVD??

    esther williams

  7. Posted Jun 17, 2009 at 9:51 am by Monika Diaz

    I just saw THE AUDITION in Canada. I was so moved. What an excellent movie, it brought Opera and the personal”drama” of all the aspiring young singers to the attention of the wide public. Thank you! When we found out about the passing of Ryan at the end of the movie the whole audience went:”Oh NO……..” with deep sadness we left the cinema ( from triumph to reflection ).The family of Ryan I want to congratulate to this wonderful son! He captured us not only with his fantastic voice but also with his character and naturalness. He was a real STAR and I am grateful that he could live his dream even shortly….

  8. Posted Nov 03, 2009 at 2:35 pm by Brian Phillips

    Ryan Smith was my co-worker as well as a good and trusted friend. You are missed!

  9. Posted Nov 27, 2009 at 9:15 pm by Renske

    I just saw this film tonight at the IDFA (Int. Documentary Festival Amsterdam) and from the start my favourite was Ryan Smith. Not per se because of his voice, which needed some polishing although it was really beautiful with a interesting vulnerability in the high notes, but especially because of the enormous communicative power of his singing. Like the whole audience I was flabbergasted by reading of his death at the end of the film. I wish his family and friends good luck and strength in dealing with this huge loss of a person who seemed a wonderful being.

  10. Posted Jan 18, 2010 at 11:09 pm by Dave

    I loved the movie. I read about Ryan’s death shortly before seeing the film and was devastated by the news. I didn’t know him, but I was deeply saddened by his passing. As it turns out, while sitting at the theater watching the movie, I sat next to a girl who went to school with Ryan. She cried during his performance and admittedly I cried too. It was so sad. He seemed like a big Teddy Bear.

  11. Posted Jan 20, 2010 at 11:05 pm by marijke smith

    Dear Mr. Paul Smith, I just watched your son sing in the documentary and his voice brought tears to my eyes.. I am so sorry for your loss but I’m sure he’s singing with the angels in heaven. I will never forget his beautiful performance and great personality he showed during the entire show. God bless you and your family. You must be so proud of what he accomplished in his short life!
    yours truly,
    Marijke Smith

  12. Posted Jan 20, 2010 at 11:37 pm by Mara

    I was totally engrossed in this documentary and was immediately struck by the sincerity, humanity, and determination shown by Ryan Smith.The contrast between his ” ah shucks” speaking voice and to hear the beauty of his singing voice was a revelation. To watch him grow and develop in that short space of time…culminating in his beautiful performance was breathtaking. The smile on his face when they announced his name made me cheer outloud here in my living room. after reading with great anticipation the follow-up of the singers a year later…I was so happy for all of them. To see the “in memoriam” for Ryan Smith just broke my heart…I am so glad he was able to live his dream for even such a short time: sing the role of Don Riccardo in “Ernani” on the stage of the Met and then be chosen as a member of the Ryan Opera in Chicago. ( yes, I looked him up on the internet and spent quite a while reading about him.) This world was blessed to be able to hear his voice.

  13. Posted Jan 21, 2010 at 3:07 am by Osborn Blount

    Though I know little to nothing about opera, I was caught in the drama of watching the movie on PBS tonight. I was intriqued by the hard work each performer put into their craft. Mr. Ryan Smith was inspiring to say the least. Then to learn at the end that he had past away, was very sad. I immediately googled Mr. Smith. I enjoyed the show and the commitment from all the performers. Mr. Smith is truly an inspiration.

  14. Posted Jan 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm by patricia

    I watched the program on tv and was very impressed with the talent. I was taken by Kevin Smith, not only by his beautiful voice and down to earth personality, but with his complete presence. I was stunned to hear of his untimely passing. I am sure he is in Heaven singing with the Angels. Kevin, you will never be forgotten.

  15. Posted Jan 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm by Jack McClurg

    To Ryan Smith’s family–our hearts were sadly broken after enjoying your son in the movie and then seeing the final memorial note about his untimely death. We lost our amazing son to cancer also, age almost 39. We will not forget your son either. Jack and Irmgard.

  16. Posted Jan 29, 2010 at 7:00 pm by Sheryl Howard

    While watching this film I keep saying about Ryan Smith, there is just something about him. He was different from the others. His spirit really moved me. He let his light so shine. I must say that at the end when they revealed his passing that I cryed like a baby. I cryed like I knew him. Through his beautiful and captivating voice we all know him. He had some soul in there too! That is one thing you can never take from us or manufacture. SOUL!!!!!!!!! He is most certainly singing amoungst the angels.

  17. Posted Feb 07, 2010 at 12:58 pm by Ken White

    On January 21,I was watching Auditions but only halfway listening. I was paying attention to the young artists but I hadn’t really gotten into it entirely until the end of Ryan Smith’s aria in the semi-finals. At the end of it, I spontaneously began sobbing. It was inexplicable. I didn’t understand the words but something about his communication and emotion was telling my soul something deeper than my consciousness could identify at that moment. I stopped everything else I was doing and focused on the film. By the finals, I felt that I knew Ryan and the other performers and I was hooked on opera. I was so happy that he made it to the finals that I cried some more and cheered (all alone in my house, it was some major drama, but cathartic at the same time). At the end, when I found out that he had died, I cried so much that it was like I had lost a close loved one. (You don’t know me but this is not a common reaction.) At the beginning of the film there was a quote from Donizetti, “The sweet dream of success troubles my mind and my heart.” I understand what this means for the young artists that are gifted, but gifted is not enough. One must have passion, soul, and perseverance to achieve one’s dream. Ryan Smith touched me and many others and even though I didn’t know him, I know that his sweet dream was not so much for success as it was for him to follow his bliss….and that is why so many people fell in love with him. He used his gift to communicate.

    The powerful lesson is do what you love and do it to the best of your ability, take chances, and pay attention to what comes your way, because there are powerful messages from unexpected messengers.

    thank you and my thoughts and prayers go to Ryan’s family. With gratitude,Ken White

  18. Posted May 16, 2010 at 7:24 am by Shirley Toohey

    I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this programme, which I saw on UK TV last night. It was really touching watching the contestants and their emotional struggles. I had an emotional struggle of my own when I saw the In Memoriam at the end. It was such a shock that someone so filled with life should have died so young. We are blessed to have experienced his talent and are bereft at its loss. My sympathies go to Ryan’s family.

  19. Posted Jul 01, 2010 at 5:38 am by amie

    Dear Mr Smith
    There is clearly something extraordinarily special about Ryan. I say is, rather than was, as his presence lives on so powerfully. I too cried in shock last night, when we watched our recording of the Audition, here in England, and today sat down to google anything and everything I could about Ryan. I too sit here reading these comments with tears streaming down- is it ridiculous when I did not know him? To hear him sing was to know something of him, something enduring and powerful and yet so sweet.

  20. Posted Jun 28, 2011 at 11:02 pm by Lydia Walker

    Will The Audition be broadcast again on PBS? I missed it in 2009 and feel as though I knew him after talking with another young “up and coming” opera singer, Ann Marie McPhail. His life reminds us that it is not the time you spend on Earth that is important, but how you spend the time. Thank you for your reply.


Leave a Comment

Thu Apr 16, 2009
at 12:31 pm