Now that the footy season has come to a celebratory end and the Flemington roses are doing their best to provide the perfect setting for Melbourne’s iconic racing event, an icon of the singing competition world has yielded another winner set to make a significant contribution to the operatic world. The Herald Sun Aria has given a huge boost to many careers by providing funds for singers to study at home and overseas. This year $60, 000 was on offer with almost $40,000 going to the winner. It’s a substantial sum and it would be hard to argue against its importance to the winner.
Observing the five finalists on Wednesday night, I gave further thought to the wider value of such competitions. It has to be said that in Australia the Herald Sun Aria differs from many others in crucial respects, the most important ones being that the singers are accompanied by a first-rate fully professional orchestra and that the size of the venue approximates a major operatic house. The latter stands in contrast to Sydney’s 500-seater Verbrugghen Hall and 1,000-seater Concourse Hall at Chatswood, in which the other major singing competitions are held. No matter how skilled and sympathetic the likes of artists such as Stefan Cassomenos are when investing orchestral resonance into transcriptions for piano, contestants in both the Herald Sun Aria and the Australian Singing Competition benefit immeasurably from having Orchestra Victoria and the Australian Opera Orchestra to support and challenge them. Conductors such as Richard Divall and Richard Mills have also been a gift to young singers in terms of encouragement and shared wisdom.
This year’s edition of the Herald Sun Aria was highly unusual inasmuch as all but one of the contestants was male and all were based in Melbourne. Two tenors, one countertenor and a baritone (formerly a tenor) shared the stage with a soprano. All are familiar to Melbourne operagoers and it was one of the pleasures of the evening to see how much they have developed over the years. I first heard the winner of the Encouragement Award, Shanul Sharma, in Lyric Opera’s production of Werther and was amazed at how well his extraordinary, high tenor has grown in strength and substance. He retains the ease of production on the high notes with a secure high D in his first Rossini aria and a string of top Cs in his second. It is a rare voice that also possesses spectacular flexibility and an appealing timbre. Michael Petruccelli, Rafael Wong and Runner-up Olivia Cranwell are seasoned contestants and performers, especially in Victorian Opera productions, and were able to invest their performances with dramatic projection and poise.
Of the many times I have heard Maximilian Riebl sing, his winning performance was the most expressive. When giving his acceptance speech, he referred to “third time lucky”, but there was much more than luck involved for this popular win. The choice of arias is crucial and it was pleasing to see that he had selected a Mozart aria as well as a contrasting Handel aria, the beautiful “Dove sei” from Rodelinda, rather than two Handel arias to display his remarkable vocal agility and well-projected tone. The Massenet aria “Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux” from Le Cid has been a popular competition choice over many decades and has brought much success for talented sopranos such as Olivia Cranwell.
A more important question, however, is the degree to which vocal talent can be assessed on the basis of two arias, especially if they are from the same composer. Furthermore, is it only on their performance on the night that they should be judged? Although it is almost always obvious why the judges have selected a particular contestant there have been occasions when other competitors have displayed even more compelling attributes. It was clear when Deborah Riedel failed to win this competition that here was something truly special. At least when Lorina Gore just missed out (twice!) there was the consolation of knowing that she was bound to have a successful operatic career ahead of her. But what if these wonderful singers had become discouraged? As so many singers who have “made it” have said, perseverance is crucial to success. It seems to be just as important as a beautiful voice, musicality and dramatic ability; it was also integral to Max Riedl’s win.
It is true that these competitions afford valuable experience, exposure and the financial wherewithal to continue studying with the best the world can provide. But there is much more to forging a successful career. Training organisations and small companies are crucial to nurturing talent by providing opportunities to learn and perform complete roles as well as honing music and language skills. To do so, they require significant financial investment.
Fortunately, many philanthropists agree. In addition to contributing prize money to the Herald Sun Aria, the Medownicks also support a number of organisations such as the Production Company, the Melbourne International Festival and Opera Australia. Melbourne cultural life would be very much the poorer without the ongoing generous patronage of the likes of the Murdoch, Potter, Pratt, Henkell and Holmes à Court foundations, that underpins a range of artistic endeavours. 3MBS is also playing an increasingly active role in the promotion of local talent; broadcasting the Herald Sun Aria is just one of a wide range of activities.
The fact that the Herald Sun Aria is now in its 93rd year and continues to attract a large, varied audience should be ample evidence of its value. The choice of arias might be relatively limited in scope, but familiarity can have a way of enthusing listeners to engage more fully with opera as a whole, which surely has to be a good thing. Along with other devoted attendees of this exhilarating cultural event, I’m looking forward to what next year has in store.
Our writer, Heather Leviston, attended the one night given over to the final of the 2017 Herald Sun Aria, at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on October 25. Athough it is not Classic Melbourne policy to “review” a competition as we might, say an MSO concert,, Heather does make some interesting points about the event itself. She also would be interested in reading the adjudicator’s report or hearing from them. One for next year, perhaps?