Tuesday, October 4, 2011

[BRIEF] I Hear Voices: Operalia 2011

Operalia is the voice competition founded in 1993 by Placido Domingo, which is organized every year in a different city. The 2011 competition was held in Moscow. In a public space in which singing competitions have become very popular, in almost all the countries of the world with a functioning TV market, from Albania to the US, it is refreshing to watch a competition where voice does indeed matter most. Most, but not completely - we are human beings, and Domingo's or Juan Diego Florez' or  Rolando Villazon's relative good looks certainly contributed to their star status - and we have not even begun talking about the many "divas" of the world of opera. However, it is a relief to see - or, rather, hear - a competition where the sheer quality of the voice and of technique matter most.    

What is it about singing competitions that catches our attention? One of the things is the music: we want to hear good music, to be entertained. Second, it is the competition as such - just like in sports, once you start getting acquainted with an athlete or a team, usually by virtue of the fact that they represent your local or national colors, you also become invested in the competition. From this point of view, the pop music competitions take the cake: they are superb at creating mini-background stories, which are truly barebones and aim the lowest common denominator (underdog stories, hardship stories), but also give a certain depth to the profile of the contestant, creating a person with whom we can associate emotionally, and for whom we can start rooting. This is why the initial selection phase is so crucial in these shows: besides being entertaining, through the sprinkling in of auditions disasters and of weird characters, this part of the show also establishes that essential initial relationship between viewer and competitor(s). This happens in shows such as X-Factor, Idol, or The Voice - shows created in specific countries (Netherlands, UK), but that have spread around the world. It also happens in the yearly Eurovision contests, but there the mechanism is that of national allegiance, since each competitor represents a country, and the public of each country gets to know them during the national phase of the selection.

In the video below one can see how the initial story and the initial emotional bond are created, during the auditions stage (of the X-Factor):

Of the contests listed above, The Voice gets closest - as the name indicates - to a focus on vocal quality as such, while American Idol is mostly a popularity contest, especially towards the later stages of the competition (and frustratingly so). In fact, The Voice (US version) is also refreshing because the very atmosphere of the show is much more amicable, and thus much more appealing, than the often abrasive Idol or X-Factor.

There is no use debating the fact that all these shows deal in pop music, which means that the voices sought and presented are the ones appropriate for that specific genre of music. Furthermore, even The Voice, where the initial selection is through a blind audition (a nice twist!), so that the judges (who are themselves pop artists) do not get to see the singers until they actually choose them, based on hearing - even this competition, then, is not and can not be entirely about "the voice." Or, more accurately, the pop genre itself is not about "voice" - as in, "a cultivated, fully developed voice," but about character and expressiveness within the expectations, conventions and the sonorous universe of the specific subgenre. We are talking about natural differences between various genres of music.

Take, for example, the difference between Andrea Bocelli and a true opera singer. Bocelli has a very pleasant voice, especially for traditional popular Italian music (like the canzoni napoletani) or for certain arias; but he is not an opera singer, which becomes evident in live performances with peers from the world of opera. He could be considered a cross-over artist, along the lines of what Josh Groban does so well. (The very talented Josh Groban, who possesses a very pleasant voice that he has cultivated with attention and through hard work.) But yes, each genre requires a different type of voice, and nobody would expect the beautifully crafted voice of an opera singer to fit in a genre that requires the cracked, world-weary sound of a bluesman (although unfortunate experiments in this sense have been made at the Pavarotti & Friends concerts, to give one example). Usually none of the singers comes out well from such experiments, unless a cross-over (bridge) is found where they can both be accommodated.

Different voices, different genres - not all equal...

Let us look, for example, at the winner of The Voice, Javier Colon; he has a truly exquisite, masterfully controlled voice, which is clearly at the top of his genre. A pleasure to listen:

The second-placed contestant in The Voice 2011, Dia Frampton, did not stand out with her vocal abilities as such. Yet she is a (multilaterally) talented young woman: composer, arranger etc., and the possessor of a voice with plenty of individuality. Here is, as an example, her very creative and quite unexpected adaptation of an otherwise banal rap song:

The next video, featuring Groban and Domingo, is not an example of an unfortunate pairing. The genre is cross-over, and the voices are top quality, each in their own field. Yet one can certainly notice the difference between these voices - of quality, depth, amplitude, control etc.

But we started by talking about Operalia, a competition with and about exquisite voices, with and about singing brought to the very highest levels of quality. Of course, this all happens within a genre that demands that quality, and a certain type of voice. Here is a video featuring one of the most impressive singers from Operalia 2011, Jaesig Lee, in a performance filmed two years earlier. (Before any accusations of "cheating" are brought up, regarding the choice of an aria, let me just say that this is one of the very few videos of him available on the Internet... as yet.)

I warmly recommend watching the entire final (concert) of Operalia 2011, available (for free viewing) here at medici.tv. You will not regret this time spent in the company of beauty.  (One more note: Jaesig Lee's outstanding, emotion-filled performance is at 00:53:13.)

Good audition!

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