La Scena Musicale

Monday, September 29, 2008

Canadian First: Québec City Hosts Plácido Domingo’s Operalia

Report by Paul Robinson

Plácido Domingo put Québec City on the world operatic map when he brought his Operalia 2008 to town.

Operalia is a vocal competition which has taken place annually for the past sixteen years in great musical capitals such as Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Although Domingo is involved in many projects – heading opera companies in Los Angeles and Washington among them – Operalia is obviously very close to his, and his family’s heart. In Québec City, Domingo conducted the final concert of the competition; his wife Marta was a member of the 13-person jury; the Hymne performed by the contestants en masse was composed by Plácido Domingo Jr.; and the film Operalia 1993-2008 was directed by his son Alvaro.

Operalia Jump Start to Fame & Fortune for Fabulous Few
Operalia was conceived as a way to help young opera singers advance their careers and it has succeeded in doing just that. Prize winners over the years have included the likes of Rolando Villazon (1999), José Cura (1994), Elizabeth Futral (1995), Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (2000), and Kate Aldrich (2002) heard as Adalgisa in Norma at Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton, Québec.

This year’s competitors were typical. They were in their early to mid-twenties and virtually all of them have completed their vocal training and have embarked on professional careers; what they need now is wider recognition to take them to the next stage.

The Operalia jury is comprised of people in a position to lend winners a helping hand. The jurors selected are often administrators of opera houses - among the members this year were Peter Katona, artistic director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Ioan Holender, head of the Vienna State Opera; and Jean-Louis Grinda, director of the Monte Carlo Opera.

There are three main prize categories in Operalia: male (US$30,000/20,000/10,000); female (US$30,000/20,000/10,000) and zarzuela (US$10,000). This last category is unique to this competition and honours the fact that Domingo’s parents were both zarzuela singers and he grew up working in their touring company in Mexico.

Scope of Operalia Global: Many Apply; Few are Chosen
Nearly 1,000 singers apply to Operalia every year. On the basis of audio and video audition tapes, 40 contestants were invited to come to Québec. There was a quarter-final round and then a semi-final round held between September 18-21. After these preliminaries, 14 finalists remained and each one sang an aria at a concert on September 24, with Domingo himself conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Québec (OSQ).

This final concert, at which the winners were announced, was held at The Grand Théâtre de Québec , and the hall was filled to capacity. Microphones (CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique) and cameras (the European television arts channel Mezzo) were abundant. After the singers had finished their performances, the jury returned their verdicts.

Among Winners this Year - Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Ukraine, and Georgia

At Operalia 2008, first prize for male singer went to tenor Joel Prieto. Prieto was born in Puerto Rico and is currently a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. For the competition he sang “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. From the outset it was clear that he had one of the most beautiful lyric voices of all the competitors. Apart from some intonation problems, he sang very well. He was even better in his zarzuela aria and also won a prize in that category.

Among the women, Mexican-born soprano María Katzarava emerged the winner with a stunning performance of “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Ms. Katzarava studied with Ramón Vargas and is a member of the young artists program at the Los Angeles Opera.

Outstanding amongst the other finalists, were Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva who demonstrated exceptional dynamic and dramatic range in “Ritorna vincitor” from Verdi’s Aïda. Like Prieto, she walked away with two prizes: second prize in the female category and sole winner of the audience prize.

Zarazuela –Bel Canto “con Salsa”?
A total of four singers were awarded prizes for zarzuela performance, each receiving US$10,000. My favourite was Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze who sang the bouncy and colourful “De España vengo” from Pablo Luna’s El niño judío.

More power to Domingo for championing zarzuela throughout the world; its popularity has long been confined to Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, but the repertoire is full of wonderful music that transcends language barriers.

For the singers who were fortunate enough to win cash prizes at the competition and catch the attention of some important opera directors, success may well lead to further recognition. As Operalia literature states,Domingo is committed to personally mentoring the prize-winners as they work to develop their talent and make crucial career decisions.

Supernova Sheds Light on Rising Stars

The stars of the evening were rightly the contestants; that said, Domingo’s contribution, not only as MC, but also as music director, was immeasurable. Few conductors could have shown such mastery in such a varied repertoire and fewer still could have provided the detailed and sympathetic support these young artists needed to give their best. Kudos also for the musicians of the OSQ who played superbly.

At age 68, Plácido Domingo may be approaching the twilight of a fabulous singing career but as conductor, administrator, teacher and mentor he appears to have the energy and dedication of a man half his age.

Operalia 2009 will be held in Budapest, Hungary.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Conductor as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music. For more on Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at
Blog Photos by Marita

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Today's Musician Birthday: January 21

Born on January 21:

1941 - Plácido Domingo, Madrid Spain, opera tenor

Wiki entry
Official website

Nessun Dorma - Plácido Domingo - Turandot - Puccini:

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Luisa Fernanda with Placido Domingo at the Movies

Opera fans are enjoying an embarrassment of riches these days. Since last season, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been bringing its best productions live to selected movie theatres in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and on a delayed basis to Australia and Japan. The huge media attention and sold out houses at every showing amply demonstrated that there is an audience out there hungry for the opportunity to see live opera for a fraction of the cost of actually travelling to New York and paying big bucks for tickets. Despite being thousands of miles away from the Met, opera fans treat the events as "real occasions". And the older demographics of an opera audience is unusual - you won't find a quieter, more attentive or appreciative bunch. Unlike a typical teenage movie audience, opera folks have the money to buy more upscale foods, they aren't rambunctious, don't make a mess, don't chat incessantly or make noise, except to applaud the artists on the screen. For the opera companies and the movie theatres, it's a win-win situation.

With the enormous success experienced by the Met, other opera companies are jumping on the bandwagon. The venerable La Scala showed its opening night Tristan und Isolde at selected movie houses in Europe and the US; Opera Australia and San Francisco Opera are also experimenting with non-satellite digital transmissions on a delayed basis. But so far none of these are coming to Canada - with one exception. Teatro Real of Madrid, an "A" house in Europe, has been showing its products through a partnership of Opus Arte and Digiscreen in the Empire Theatre chain and four independent repertory theatres in Canada with little fanfare. I knew nothing about it until my publisher called to see if I could write a review. A quick e-mail secured two media passes to yesterday's performance of Luisa Fernanda, a zarzuela starring megastar Placido Domingo. It was showing at the Empress Walk 10 of the Empire Theatres chain in North York. It is a short stroll north from the Sheppard Grande, where the Met has been showing its operas. Compared to the Sheppard Centre, Empress Walk is newer, better maintained, nicely designed with plenty of concession choices for those who want to grab a bite or a drink. The cinemas are immaculately maintained, and the staff offering friendly and efficient service. There was even a washroom attendant at the door - I give the theatre chain an "A" for effort!

Fearing it would be another sold out event, I decided to show up an hour early to secure a good seat. I needn't have worried. Shockingly, the single cinema showing the opera was practically deserted, even with Placido Domingo on the playbill. The Met experiment has demonstrated that there IS an audience for opera at the movies. True - fans are always attracted to a live event, and the Teatro Real productions are "canned". And zarzuela isn't a particularly big draw in Canada since we don't have a large Hispanic population. Still, if the product is good, the fans will come out. It is clear that Empire Theatres have a great deal of work to do in the publicity department. There was no mention of this in the local newspapers that I could find. I did an informal survey of my many opera friends. Except for the three friends that actually showed up yesterday, none of my other friends were aware of this event. But then, neither was I two days ago!

I have to admit my knowledge of zarzuelas is limited, except to say that it is Spanish and folksy, highly romantic, full of pretty tunes and colourful costumes. The story of Luisa Fernanda is your typical love triangle, with tuneul, rather uncomplicated harmonies and orchestration. The piece is also short - even with a 20 minute intermission, the show was over in about two hours. According to a friend who was recently in Madrid, "local" zarzuelas don't always have the best singers, but with the great Domingo in this show, you can't do better than this! Afterall, he sang as a kid in a zarzuela company in Mexico ran by his parents! As Vidal Fernando, Domingo sang with his trademark burnished tone. Despite looking a tad mature, he could still conjure up the image of an aging romantic hero, in the vein of a Don Quixote. Opposite him was the excellent Luisa of Nancy Fabiola Herrera. This Canarian-born, American-trained mezzo is currently at the Met singing Carmen. Rounding out the cast is Spanish tenor Jose Bros. A high tenor in the tradition of a Juan Diego Florez, Bros looked a bit young to be the Colonel Javier Moreno, but his clarion tenor was a pleasure. If the musical values were high, the production itself was strictly budget-wise. The battle scene was reduced to a few silhouettes projected onto the backdrop, and until the last act, the only props onstage were two dozen white chairs, and a tiny wooden model of the city of Madrid sitting on the side! A saving grace was the conducting of the highly experienced Jesus Lopez-Cobos. The picture quality in this HD moviecast is better than the Met's satellite transmission - no glitches and the sound is better. I spoke to almost everyone at the cinema, and they all enjoyed it. So it is a shame that so few people turned out. With more publicity, I am sure opera fans will show up. I think it is important for opera lovers to show up to these events, to show our support. When the next show is announced, I'll be sure to mention it in this blog. Stay tuned!

> More articles on HD Opera

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