Competing in Canada : 'Concours Musical International de Montreal

Jeunesses Musicales Canada, in partnership with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal hosts the annual Concours Musical International de Montréal, a contest designed to promote young, talented musicians who have mastered their art.

For last year’s competition, 190 professional singers age 33 or younger as of Jan. 1 of that year sent in applications and pictures, plus recordings of songs, oratorio or cantata selections, and operatic arias. Selection committees reviewed all recordings in a blind audition, so no committee member knew the names of the singers or their countries of citizenship.

As a result of that audition, the judges chose 45 singers from 17 countries to come to Montreal and appear in person before an international jury. At the semifinal auditions, held in Montreal from May 10 to 13, contestants sang half-hour recitals. Each singer performed an oratorio or cantata aria, a song or short cycle in French, a song in German or a language other than French or German, the required Canadian song—Jocelyn Morlock’s “Amore”—and an operatic aria. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast those sessions live on the Internet.

The competition defrayed travel costs for the semifinalists, and offered the singers free lodging with volunteer host families for the duration of the singers’ participation.

Eventually, the competition selected 12 finalists. After each finalist sang a short concert with orchestra, judges chose six winners, who gave a gala concert May 20. CBC Radio also broadcast the mini-concerts, and the gala, on the Internet.

André Bourbeau, business leader, politician, and philanthropist—and creator and current president of the competition—served as the head of the jury. Other members included conductor Mario Bernardi, soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones, tenor Carlo Bergonzi, mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, and bass Joseph Rouleau, along with baritones Tom Krause and Eduardo del Campo. Unfortunately, opportunities for feedback from the judges were limited to informal occasions.

Masterclasses were held May 15, the day before the finals began. Accomplished young singers who were not participating in the competition had the opportunity to learn from Shirley Verrett in the morning, Carlo Bergonzi in the afternoon and Dame Gwyneth Jones in the evening.

During the final rounds of the competition, each singer presented a 25-minute program. Requirements were as follows: (1) an aria from an oratorio or cantata, (2) an orchestrated piece other than an aria, (3) two operatic arias and one concert aria or three operatic arias. Judges measured each singer’s ability to perform various types of music equally well while using the correct musical style and presentation for each piece.

Each member of the jury ranked the finalists numerically from one to 12. No discussion among the judges was permitted, and the singer with the lowest score won. Singers with small- to medium-sized voices did well, since the judges placed no particular emphasis on opera or singing over a large orchestra. Technique and musicianship counted more than innate vocal quality.

Originally, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal was to accompany the final rounds, but unfortunately, the players were on strike at the time. The competition’s authorities were forced to assemble an orchestra from the instrumentalists available on the day before the first round of finals. The players had only one rehearsal for each piece, but they performed well, under the direction of maestro Daniel Lipton. Between May 16 and 18, four singers sang each evening—and the competition had to resort to a piano accompaniment only once, because the orchestra did not have time to learn the piece.

These contestants sang not only for the judges, but for important artists’ managers, as well as symphony and opera company executives, all in attendance to hear casting possibilities.

The first grand prize, for $25,000 (all amounts refer to Canadian dollars), went to South Korean soprano Sin Nyung Hwang. She sang Mozart’s “Exultate, jubilate,” Chausson’s “Le temps des lilas,” the Queen of the Night’s first aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and one from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. She has an attractive timbre, excellent diction, and her top notes bloomed beautifully, but there were a few imperfections in her coloratura.

Canadian baritone Peter McGillivray won the second grand prize, for $15,000, and an auxiliary prize of $10,000. He sang a piece from Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée,” and the Count’s aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, along with selections from Verdi’s Falstaff and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. He has a formidable baritone sound and excellent technique.

Elena Xanthoudakis of Australia won the third grand prize, for $7,500, with selections from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Puccini’s La rondine, and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. She also won a prize of $5,000 for her beautiful rendition of “Amore,” the Morlock song. Xanthoudakis did more than sing well—she was naturally gracious and had excellent stage presence.

Winners of the fourth and fifth grand prizes, Georgian soprano Anna Kasyan and Canadian baritone Phillip Addis, were considered equals, so each received $4,500. Kasyan has a flexible mid-sized voice with a pleasant timbre. Her choices were Vivaldi’s “In furore justissimae irae,” Duparc’s “Chanson triste,” and Mozart’s “Misera, dove son!” along with arias from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Addis proved to have a resonant sound as well as good stagecraft. He sang selections from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. His winnings also included the Joseph Rouleau Award of $7,500 and a local prize of $5,000.

Winner of the $3,000 sixth grand prize was Chantal Dionne of Canada, who has a beautiful, delicate sounding voice. Her offerings were an aria from a Bach cantata, Duparc’s “Chanson triste” and arias from Granados’ Goyescas, Puccini’s Le Villi, and Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.

The People’s Choice award of $2,500 went to American soprano Lauren Skuce. With a rich, clear voice and a smooth technique, she sang arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Verdi’s La traviata, Puccini’s Turandot and Orff’s Carmina Burana, along with the Richard Strauss song, “Beim Schlafengehen.”

Finalists who did not win prizes included the robust-voiced British baritone Simon Bailey, who sings at the Frankfurt Opera in Germany; Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer, who had good dramatic color; Belgian bass Shadi Torbey, who sang accurate coloratura; and two singers who seemed a bit inexperienced at this time but may do better at a later date: Canadian mezzo-soprano Christina Stelmacovich and Chinese mezzo Peiyi Wang.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.