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Anyone else see "The Audition" on Sunday? What glorious voices! So very sad about Ryan Smith- a tenor with so much promise. It will be very interesting to see what becomes of these young talents over the years- I'll be watching the Met roster.

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I couldn't make it. The May Opera News has a review by Eric Myers, but it's not available online unless you subscribe.

Myers suggests that the filmmakers should have gone more into the personal back-stories of the participants, as was done in Spellbound, the 2002 documentary about 8 middle-school students who were finalists in the Scripps Hoard National Spelling Bee.

The major problem here is that we simply don't know enough about the contestants.

Would you say that that's a fair criticism?

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I would have liked more detail, but given the relatively short movie (about 1 1/2 hrs), it would have been difficult going into more personal depth. I would rather have seen more of the actual coaching. There were only snippets of what must have been hours of coaching.

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I was disappointed in "The Audition". I don't know what footage the filmmakers had to work with, but I thought that they couldn't decide what kind of documentary it was going to be, and it ended up a tepid pastiche. I don't agree with the "Opera News" reviewer that the film should necessarily have focused on the backstory, but that would have been one way to give the film grounding and a point of view. There's a great difference between anxiety and dramatic tension, which, in my opinion, only showed up at the end. Even then, the logic of the narrative escaped me often. For example, in the excerpts shown, I thought that Disella Larusdottir, the beatifically beautiful coloratura from Iceland, who has the type of voice I rarely care about, infused so much emotion and color into her scene from Berlioz's "I Capuletti e I Montecchi" that I'm going to figure out a way to travel to Iceland to hear her, and, yet, when she went offstage, she could only talk about how she had never sung so badly, in both of her arias. This made no sense to me based on the clips shown. Either the film makers didn't want to show where she struggled, or she was being too hard on herself, and there was no one to put this in context. Did the judges agree that she sang badly? Or did they decide she was too old?

I found the director's decisions curious: did we need to see the reaction of so many singers when they first got on the Met stage, one for the semis, again for the orchestra, and then listen to them talk about how overwhelming it was? It felt like half an hour of this, although I'm sure that was just perception. Did we need to watch almost every competitor in every phrase walk into the room in which his/her colleagues were waiting? The same people were supportive, and Michael Fabiano glowered. It didn't make sense or a point. There was so much footage of conductor Marco Armiliato being adorable and encouraging, a point that was gettable the first two or three times. It was very clear how many people in the process were supportive of the singers and wanted them to be successful. What was interesting was the differences in the way these singers approached the stage, the coaching sessions, and reacted to the situation.

The three things that I found fascinating were the coaching, the strategy for choosing pieces, and the judging, and these, by comparison, were meted out in favor of repetitive reaction scenes. My favorite part of "Hoosiers" was watching the drills, because it showed the work and the discipline that gradually came to fruition on the court. I thought one of the great scenes in "The Audition" was during the breathing lesson, when Kiera Duffy was able to absorb the breathing coach's suggestion immediately and to enrich her sound significantly. It might be rare, but that was magic.

I would have like to have seen how some of the singers warmed up: what exercises did they use? How did they know when they were ready? (What were the tests?) How did they prepare for walking into the room with the coaches? Did they just fling the door open? Did they pace, take a deep breath, pray? What was the process?

There were so many themes that were left dropped. Take weight, for example. The very heavy women showed their concerns, and touched the surface of how they could or could not address it, but there were two critical pieces in the film that weren't tied to it, and could have made a story arc: the discussion among the judges about whether one of the singers could be cast in her fach because of her weight. (If she can sing "Casta Diva" like that, she can sing Norma in my opera company any time she wants, thank you.) I think the other was when mezzo soprano winner Jamie Barton performed the witch in "Hansel and Gretel": I think she deliberately showed how she could act and how she could move, despite being heavy. She showed a lot of stage presence and charisma, and that showed her as a useful singer.

I think the real underlying drama, apart from naming the winners, which is a no-brainer, was what were the judges looking for and how did the singers try to guess/understand/intuit that and adapt, while still maintaining their authentic selves (or not). Because it wasn't about the most beautiful voice or the most finished voice, just as it isn't about the best actor or the best dancer or the best candidate for the job or internship or fellowship or ambassadorship in a vacuum. It's about what the hirers and looking for, what they like, and what they need. That dramatic point was erratic and diffused. Watching anxiety is not nearly as interesting as the mechanism driving the boat.

The next dramatic level was only touched upon: how at each phase -- and we are talking a mere week between Semi-Finals and Finals -- raised the bar and the expectations. It was a little Kafka-esque.

What I found downright appalling was the trailer: each time I saw it, after Duffy, the tiny soprano who makes Natalie Dessay look zaftig, said to the coach (?) whose first name was Carrie Anne something like "I feel like I'm ahead" and Carrie Anne replied emphatically, "You're not," the audience reaction was audibly negative, snorts and hrumps, and murmurings of the b-word (and this in polite Seattle), interpreting this as how she felt about her competitors. It isn't until close to the end that you see this quote in context: Carrie Anne says something like "You're not. He'll follow you," meaning the conductor. Duffy was anxious about how she was syncing with the orchestra. Meh, meh, and meh to whoever made that decision.

The irony of it all is that while the three featured tenors, Fabiano, Ryan Smith, and Alek Shrader, were rivals in competition -- I didn't get enough of a sense of Michael (?) Plenk to know where his voice lies -- they were so different, that if I had my imaginary regional opera company with 4-5 operas a year, I could build a season around them. They sang very different things.

Maybe it's just me being a tenor person, but it seemed to me that the personality stories were an alternative Three Tenors. Shrader and Fabiano could not have been more opposite. Shrader, who could take over for Ashton Kutcher, seems to be the sunniest human being ever. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Fabiano. In one scene, he talks about how you have to play the game, smile, etc., but this was a guy whose every emotion was readable on his face at every minute, and his emotional landscape was like the weather in Seattle: wait 10 minutes and it would change. He could hide nada. He would walk into the waiting area with his colleagues, and the air would be sucked out of the room. Once it a while, he would be moved by someone else's singing for a brief second, but then realize that they were the enemy, and then he'd go back to full sulk. (At least, though, he admitted to having a temper and recognized at one point that he needed a self-imposed time-out.) As a colleague, he came across as a potential nightmare.

What was scary was that he doesn't have the filter between his thoughts and emotions and his vocal chords. I kept thinking that in five years, he would have either spent his voice or driven his car off a cliff. But his interpretive gifts at such a young age -- the result of all of that thinking and fulminating -- are extraordinary. I was in tears during his aria from Le Villi, just gobsmacked, and his "Kuda" was gorgeous. Though I'm grateful for that fourth wall. Performance isn't like competition; it's not "Rocky" every night, and it's not a series of recitals. It's hard to imagine a more lonely existence than being on the road all of the time without being able to enjoy the act of collaboration, and always trying to be five steps ahead of the game.

I saw the film with Sandy McKean and his wife, and the first time Ryan Smith started to sing my favorite tenor aria, "E la solita storia" from "L'Arlesiana", I turned to Kathy and whispered, "I want to marry him." What a generous sound. For me, the payoff really was how the three tenors sang their arias in the competition. From the excerpt in the film, Smith was the first tenor I've heard to rival the Ferrucio Tagliavini red vinyl 45 I practically wore out as a teenager. Alek Shrader, who had never sung "Mes amis" from "La Fille du Regiment" in public, and who said before the finals that he hoped to get 5-6 of the high C's, and if he got the last one, maybe no one would remember that he missed a few in the middle, nailed each and every one of them, looking like he could start a boy band the whole time. And Fabiano was just wonderful in the "Onegin". You just know, though, that when they called the winners -- there were going to be five, with an optional sixth -- and no one knew after number five whether that was it, that they called him last to torture him.

The real dramatic moment in the movie is the still, dedicating the film to the late Ryan Smith, who died of lymphoma a year and a half after winning and starting a real career. The sweetest was when Smith called home to say "Mama, I won."

After the film, there was a mini-panel discussion between Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Thomas Hampson. I know that Fleming is the poster girl for beautiful, but she's a gusher, and insight is not her forte, at least when she's playing hostess. The meat of the discussion came from Hampson. I've always found him arrogant -- I wanted to slap him when he "interviewed" John Relyea and Marcello Giordani just as they came offstage after Act I of "Damnation of Faust", cutting off the baritone every chance he got, and focusing on Giordani, who seemed a bit flustered -- and I mentioned this to a former co-worker who had been his contemporary when both were young singers. She acknowledged that he was arrogant, but that he delivered, even as a neophyte: she said, he acted as if he were G-d's gift, but he sang as if he were G-d's gift. Here, he sounded intelligent and generous, and when he said that the singers should come to him for counsel on nerves, I immediately thought that Fabiano should book a one-way ticket to Vienna and get himself adopted. Why do I think the level of the conversation would have gone up several notches if the non-svelte Stephanie Blythe had hosted it?

I did love the still photo of Susan Graham in her winner's concert, with her big Texas hair.

Since the DVD was distributed to a general film audience -- even Roger Ebert reviewed it -- I'm hoping it makes it to DVD with the extras of the footage of the competition. A girl can dream, no?

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Since the DVD was distributed to a general film audience -- even Roger Ebert reviewed it -- I'm hoping it makes it to DVD with the extras of the footage of the competition. A girl can dream, no?

I don't suppose they'll show extra footage, but according to the Met's Twitter page, PBS will show the film this fall. They show all the HD broadcasts eventually; I saw Lucia di Lammermoor Sunday.

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I completely agree that the judges' decision making was given very short shrift. It made it seem as if the decisions were made in a few minutes. Now, this is entirely possible- sometimes it just takes a few notes and you know right away thumbs up or down. I too would have loved to see Stephanie Blythe as a panel member, with more insight as to the competition as it is now done, and a bit more discussion on the emphasis of looks over voice.

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The three things that I found fascinating were the coaching, the strategy for choosing pieces, and the judging, and these, by comparison, were meted out in favor of repetitive reaction scenes.
This IS rather strange, considering that the Met itself must have had some imput into what went into the film. It's almost as though they did not trust the audience's interest in -- and ability to comprehend -- these matters. The promo material on the film, shown at each Met HDLive performance for most of the season, featured vapid tv/chatter conversation among the singers. This did not entice me to see the film.
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Once again Helene gives an amazingly insightful review.......sometimes I think she must have 3 brains since I can't imagine how else she notices and remembers so much in a single performance (viewing).

I agree with almost every specific observation Helene makes about this documentary, but I come to almost the opposite conclusion! Helene was disappointed; I was delighted. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. How is this possible? I suspect it is due to expectations. I was hoping for a well-made film that went "behind the scenes" and would give me a peek at the human side of being an young(ish), not-yet-established opera singer; I also hoped to learn something about voices. I got all of that......and I was pleased as punch.

So how can I agree with nearly all of Helene's observations and yet see so much that is positive? As in most things it depends on where you are sitting (not literally in this case since I was sitting 5 feet from Helene :D ). I have no doubt that the film had to be limited to something like 2 hours (that's as long as the general public typically tolerates films). So lots of compromises had to be made -- not everything could be shown. I think they made the right choice in not showing much in the way of back-stories. They used their limited film time actually in the Met Opera House covering the actual semi-finals and finals. Good decision I think. True, the judges portion was too short and incomplete; but I applaud the film maker for being able to show even that much. It was mentioned during the b'cast that getting these judges to agree to having their conversations recorded was one of the most difficult things the film maker accomplished. Imagine having your negative comments about an inspiring singer recorded forever! I was tickled pink to be able to see any of that (expectations again). As Helene points out the film lacked a clear narrative; but that didn't bother me as it did her. I actually sort of liked the "Robert Altman" style of recording "real life" occurring and leaving it up to the audience to piece it together (I had no expectation for a narrative).

As for the actual singing.......once again I think Helene observations are on the mark. However, Helene's ear is the best I've ever known; I, OTOH, am still learning the basics. This film gave me a rare opportunity to hear different voices and to hear professional coaching and reaction on those specific voices. I can't imagine how else I might get that exposure. It was more than enough for my level (much like the expectation thing again), and I felt I learned a lot.

If I were teaching a film class, I would give Helene's criticism an A (well maybe an A- :) ). But leaving aside what the film might have been (especially if it could have been a 3 or 4 hour film), I thoroughly enjoyed the film and recommend it highly.

The sweetest was when Smith called home to say "Mama, I won."

AMEN

P.S. I too cried more than once during this film.

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I want to second Sandy's tribute to Helene's insights, attention to detail, and mind-boggling powers of recall. :clapping: (I, on the other hand, have to carry a note with the name of the supermarket to remind me where I'm going when I leave home.)

:off topic: RE: Met stars as interviewers and presenters. I agree entirely re Fleming and Hampson. I've seen all the Met HD-Live programs. the best by far, to me at least, is Deborah Voight. Second by half a length, Susan Graham.

I wonder whether something at one of the big ballet competitions would be of interest to film-makers and audiences?

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I am also amazed at Helene's powers of observation and insightful review- but I confess- I did enjoy the movie. And then I went home and watched youtube clips of Callas, Dessay, 30 Lakme Bellsongs... (I'm a soprano fan).

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There’s a nice review on allmusic.com. The DVD will be out this summer, it notes, and I’m sure it will be broadcast on PBS. It sounds like a good film and I’m looking forward to it.

While The Audition bears some resemblance to the competition reality shows that have become a national obsession — behind-the-scenes interviews with the contestants that include surprising self revelations, the uneasy mix of camaraderie and competitiveness among the contestants, the anxiety of competing and the agonizing wait to hear the outcome, the judges’ frank deliberations about the performers — this is a far classier enterprise. The biggest difference is the attitude of the hosts, who on TV ramp up the anxiety and drama by relentlessly reminding the contestants that someone is going be eliminated, and that at the end, anyone could be publicly humiliated by the judges by having every flaw of their presentation exposed, often with barely contained contempt or malicious glee. Here, the staff of the Metropolitan Opera works tirelessly with the singers during the week between the semi-finals and finals with the sincere desire to help every competitor achieve his or her highest potential.
I am also amazed at Helene's powers of observation and insightful review- but I confess- I did enjoy the movie.

Good for you, dufay. :) Thanks so much for starting this topic. I’ve really enjoyed reading all the responses!

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I bought the DVD at the Metropolitan Opera Shop, and knowing what to expect, I enjoyed the film a lot more. I had forgotten, though, how before he sang "Mes amis" Alek Shrader kept saying to himself, "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger", which, given the recent travails of a different Tiger, he might have skipped if the film was current.

Sadly, the full performances were not one of the bonus features. The Fleming/Graham/Hampson interview was listed, but I couldn't bring myself to watch it again.

The second bonus feature was a short film that director Froemke made on the Southwestern auditions. According to one of the judges, there was no screening, and anyone with $20 and an audition photo could audition. (One of the contestants said it was expensive, although she didn't say whether it was to sign up, or to pay for the training to get there.) The structure was a relatively open audition on day one, with seven finalists chosen, and a public performance audition on day two, after which the judges chose two second prizes and one first prize. The winner of the first prize went to NYC for the semifinals, and in this case, made it to the finals captured in the main film.

In this case, both the snarky comments by the judges to each other and the direct feedback -- in the auditorium to those who didn't make it to day two, and around a swimming pool at the post-competition party for the finalists -- the judges gave to the contestants were the highlights. Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins was one of the judges -- from his comments, it was his first time judging the Met Council Auditions, at least at this level -- and what was really scary is that I could predict which of the singers we heard that he'd like.

There was one tenor, Jameson James, who sang Tom's aria from "The Rake's Progress". Although Jenkins said he could tell form James' aria list that his top was not developed, and that Tom's aria is a terrible audition aria, I give James major props for his clear diction singing in English. I understood every syllable.

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I watched it again on the plane, and I'm wondering whether it was edited in the DVD version (maybe for the PBS broadcast?). I seem to remember a scene in which one of the singers paced back and forth in front of the door to the coaching room before going in, and there were several pieces of music listed in the credits that I don't remember having heard sung, like Wolfram's aria from "Tannhauser", which I think is only mentioned in conversation.

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In our market, one station has it; the other does not. It would have to be edited to into a two-hour time slot. (The dvd running time is 157 minutes, but that includes additional material.)

Incidentally, there is a reference to one of the participants -- Michael Fabbiano -- in Anthony Tommasini's review of the recent Met opening night of Stifelio.

And Met fans who have seen “The Audition [... ] will be eager to hear the young tenor Michael Fabiano, who made his Met debut as Raffaele, the young nobleman who seduces Lina. In the documentary, which is to be broadcast on WNET in New York at 9 p.m. next Wednesday (check local listings for other PBS stations), Mr. Fabiano comes across as the most fiercely competitive finalist. On Monday there was real Italianate ardor in his appealing voice.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/arts/mus....html?ref=music

I re-read Helene's impressions of Fabbiano earlier in this thread. They made me very curious to see him. Here's Helene's take on him from that earlier post:

On the opposite side of the spectrum was Fabiano. In one scene, he talks about how you have to play the game, smile, etc., but this was a guy whose every emotion was readable on his face at every minute, and his emotional landscape was like the weather in Seattle: wait 10 minutes and it would change. He could hide nada. He would walk into the waiting area with his colleagues, and the air would be sucked out of the room. Once it a while, he would be moved by someone else's singing for a brief second, but then realize that they were the enemy, and then he'd go back to full sulk. (At least, though, he admitted to having a temper and recognized at one point that he needed a self-imposed time-out.) As a colleague, he came across as a potential nightmare.

What was scary was that he doesn't have the filter between his thoughts and emotions and his vocal chords. I kept thinking that in five years, he would have either spent his voice or driven his car off a cliff. But his interpretive gifts at such a young age -- the result of all of that thinking and fulminating -- are extraordinary. I was in tears during his aria from Le Villi, just gobsmacked, and his "Kuda" was gorgeous.

There appear to be lots of YouTube clips, including this one of Fabbiano's Alfredo from Traviata:

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I think the real underlying drama, apart from naming the winners, which is a no-brainer,

I wouldn’t pass any significant judgments on these singers by how their instruments come across in this film, although based on that I was most impressed with Amber Wagner. I expect some of them sounded quite different live. The late Ryan Smith had a nice big voice with some promise but I’d not venture further based on what I heard in the broadcast. Larusdottir’s high notes seemed on the querulous side to me. I’d have liked to hear more from Pallesen. But this seemed like a very strong field of contenders overall.

I also liked the film generally. I would quibble with some editing choices and it does tend to flit about, but I prefer that to overbearing and possibly artificial attempts to create dramatic tension (there’s not that much tension to generate, really, since it’s still possible for all of these singers to do well professionally even if they aren’t winners here).

I completely agree that the judges' decision making was given very short shrift. It made it seem as if the decisions were made in a few minutes. Now, this is entirely possible- sometimes it just takes a few notes and you know right away thumbs up or down. I too would have loved to see Stephanie Blythe as a panel member, with more insight as to the competition as it is now done, and a bit more discussion on the emphasis of looks over voice.

I agree, dufay.

Thanks for reviving this thread, Helene.

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Michael Fabiano has been having a very successful early career so far, and from what I've heard of snippets online, his performances in the film were representative. Ryan Smith got some wonderful reviews after the competition during the year before he died. Alek Shrader, who to me sounded like he had terrific underlying technique, has been taking it slow and steady. He was featured briefly on a SFB promotional video that was published to YouTube for an abridged, family performance of "Elixir of Love" (in English), and his voice sounds stronger and more bright. Angela Meade made a rave debut at the Met in "Don Giovanni" as a last-minute replacement last season. She is the one who fascinated me most, because she sounded so old-fashioned in the best way. I wasn't surprised when she mentioned Callas and Caballe as her idols, and she seemed to be striving for bel canto quality.

Thanks to a poster on Opera-L, here is a link to Jamie Barton's debut recital at Carnegie Hall on 5 March. What a brilliant selection of material.

I'm still puzzled by one of the judge's comments that Kiera Duffy's voice sounded like it belonged in European houses. Maybe she would have been just as inaudible as half the cast in the Handel I saw at the barn on the Dallas fairgrounds, but I know someone who saw the competition live, and said she was quite audible with good tone.

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Michael Fabiano has been having a very successful early career so far, and from what I've heard of snippets online, his performances in the film were representative. Ryan Smith got some wonderful reviews after the competition during the year before he died. Alek Shrader, who to me sounded like he had terrific underlying technique, has been

I'm still puzzled by one of the judge's comments that Kiera Duffy's voice sounded like it belonged in European houses. Maybe she would have been just as inaudible as half the cast in the Handel I saw at the barn on the Dallas fairgrounds, but I know someone who saw the competition live, and said she was quite audible with good tone.

Opinions will always differ, I fear. I'm sure many of the voices sounded different live on stage.

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I wouldn’t pass any significant judgments on these singers by how their instruments come across in this film, although based on that I was most impressed with Amber Wagner. I expect some of them sounded quite different live. The late Ryan Smith had a nice big voice with some promise but I’d not venture further based on what I heard in the broadcast.

I was searching for information about Fabiano and found a link to this review by Anne Midgette in The Washington Post who agrees. She wasn't impressed by Shrader in the house nearly as much as she was in the film, and didn't think Smith had it.

I found it more concerning when she wrote that "That is, it selects a few singers to follow, and gives others significantly less air time; but it shorts some of the day's memorable performances and builds up some that were less good." I don't think any of the singers in the film have a Met PR star-making team behind them, and if they were overrated in the film, time and exposure will/would bring this out, but if there were greater performances to which we weren't exposed, I can only hope that the opera directors recognized this and will make appropriate offers.

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