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Classical Notes

Opera auditions

Posted at 4:13 PM on November 8, 2006 by Rex Levang

Young people are so clever nowadays.

That's the overwhelming impression left by attending the first round of the Metropolitan Opera’s auditions last Saturday. It's always been a showplace for youthful potential – but sheerly in terms of professional polish, the average level of attainment seems to get higher and higher.

Take something like languages: In addition to the operatic Big Three (Italian, German, French), there were also arias in Russian and Czech on offer, plus English. In everything I heard, the singers seemed to know the meaning of what they were singing -- no phonetic singing by rote -- and negotiated the tricky points of pronunciation and diction with aplomb.

By the same token, the repertory choices seem to be ever-expanding. At one time, most of the arias sung seemed to come from "the book"– the standard G. Schirmer collection of arias for soprano (or for mezzo, or tenor, etc.) Many was the time that Musetta waltzed, or Papageno informed us that he was the birdcatcher, always merry, tra-la-la.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that: if you become a professional singer, Puccini and Mozart will help you out with a lot of car payments. But on Saturday, the singers had also prepared arias by composers like Britten, Andre Previn, Stravinsky, and (a new name to me) Edwin Penhorwood.

And we also heard singers who went beyond the familiar notes of the standard scores and sensitively ornament their vocal lines. One baritone did a well-known Mozart aria, but with some high notes that aren't in the standard score.

Sacrilege? Not necessarily. A few years back, a musicologist published some alternate versions of this aria dating from Mozart’s day -- possibly by Mozart himself. So here was a singer who either hit the library for some scholarly research, or else tossed off some improvisations, "in the style of."

Young people are so clever nowadays!