Vocal Competitions: A Judge’s Perspective

By Diane Zola, HGO Director of Artistic Administration

I have just returned from Cape Town, South Africa, where I served on the jury of the 35th Hans Gabor Belvedere International Singing Competition. Judging international singing competitions is a great way to scout for exciting young singers who are not only talented but bring a distinct sound and interpretation to the stage. It is thrilling to discover a new voice in this environment and even more exciting when an HGO Studio artist or alum or a YAVA alum earns recognition as a prize winner.

Diane and MarcusI have served on the jury of the Belvedere Competition since 2004; until 2012 the competition was held in Vienna. In 2013 it moved to Amsterdam, then Dusseldorf, back to Amsterdam, and this year it made the big move to Cape Town. In 2011 Rachel Willis-Sørensen won first prize while she was still a member of the HGO Studio; alumna Laquita Mitchell was a winner in 2003.  

Preliminary qualifying rounds are held in multiple cities around the world; this year the pool was narrowed down to 120 singers, of whom 90 participated. We reduced that number to 48 for the semi-finals and then chose 16 singers to participate in the finals.  In the first round each performer chose an aria from his or her list; the jury then selected the arias for the semi-finals and the finals. Singers from South Africa, Armenia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States made it to the finals, which were performed with orchestra.

We rate the singers on a numerical points system, with almost no discussion unless there is a tie. The jury chooses three prize winners, the audience chooses its favorite, and there is a separate media jury prize. As all jury members are from opera companies, a number of singers are offered contracts, including some not among the winners.

This year the winners were: 1st prize: American bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee (YAVA alum); 2nd prize and Audience Choice: South African soprano Noluvuyiso Mpofu, soprano (finalist in HGO’s 2016 Eleanor McCollum Competition), 3rd prize: American mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis (finalist in HGO’s 2015 McCollum Competition), and Media Award: Lithuanian soprano Jomante Slezaite.

I find it fascinating to see how cultural stereotypes figure in people’s minds. Someone may think, “Here comes an American; Americans are technically polished and sing well, but they don’t move me.” Or, “Here comes a Russian; Russians have a wonderful sound but sing too loudly.” One must step away from those pre-conceptions, open the mind and ears, and listen objectively.  

You learn when to speak and when to keep silent—you need to choose your moments well.  One year there was a young soprano who was quite heavy, and several of the European judges did not want to move her forward because of the visual impression she made. But what a voice! A colleague, also from the States, and I said, “You have to move her forward! This is not only an incredible voice but an amazing talent.” In the end she not only advanced, but she ended up winning first prize and is now singing on the world’s greatest stages.  

Judging competitions such as the Belvedere offers a great opportunity to network with colleagues from around the world and share information about singers, conductors, and stage directors. What is also important about competitions like the Belvedere, the Met National Council Auditions, and the Viñas is that they enable us to both nourish some of the singers that we hear and also to broaden the scope of artists that we bring to our own stages.

Finally, I came away with tremendous admiration for the audiences of Cape Town, who were supportive of every singer—not just their own—and truly appreciated and cheered each singer on. It was a thrilling week.