Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Aria

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Published: 23rd August, 2018

The twelfth edition of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic (RMP) Aria on August 19,2018,  was another reminder of how such an event can contribute to the nurturing of young vocal talent. A few weeks earlier the same venue, Deakin Edge, hosted the slightly longer running German-Australian Opera Grant (GAOG). These two prestigious competitions provide prize money, performance opportunities, education and exposure for contestants.

The RMP Aria distinguishes itself from other aria competitions by being the only Australian vocal competition entirely focused on oratorio performance. This year eight young emerging professional singers each sang one recitative and two arias. Unlike other similar competitions, the RMP aria requires all three items to be sung in one block – an arrangement that strikes me as beneficial as it allows singers to “warm up” more effectively and reduces entering and exiting delays. This was particularly welcome in what was a lengthy program.

A more important distinguishing feature of the RMP Aria is the way it is embedded in a larger musical program on the day of the competition. This year over 100 members of the RMP Choir and wider musical choral community participated in a “Sing Your Own Oratorio” project. After the finalists had completed their solo items and listeners (including choir members) had handed in their People’s Choice Award ballot papers during the short interval, they performed Antonio Lotti’s 8-part motet Crucifixus and one of the very first oratorios, Giacomo Carissimi’s Historia di Jephte.

The choir was seated on the Deakin Edge tiers at the back of stage, very much a part of proceedings during the competition segment. When it was their turn to sing they sounded as though they had been inspired by what they had just heard. All sections of the choir negotiated the 46 suspensions of the Crucifixuswith conviction and considerable clarity. The soprano semi-chorus was particularly vibrant and youthful sounding in Jephte and the men sounded disciplined and robust. It was a great credit to all choir members and to conductor Andrew Wailes that they were able to create such an impressive and coherent performance given the limited rehearsal time. As Jephte’s daughter, soprano Kate Macfarlane captured the innocence of a dutiful daughter willing to become the sacrifice promised to God by her father in exchange for victory. Brenton Spiteri clear tenor gave dramatic urgency to his portrayal of Jephte, his agile ornamentation reflecting early Baroque style. A small band of instrumentalists accompanied the choir while Calvin Bowman, who was also an adjudicator, accompanied the soloists’ extended recitatives on the organ.

A vital element that the RMP Aria and GAOG have in common is a dependence on the expertise of their accompanists. Stefan Cassomenos and Phillipa Safey have both mastered the art of transforming piano reductions into the kind of music that gives support and encouragement to the singers. Sensitivity to their needs combined with technical skill has made them highly valued artistic collaborators.

There is a further connection between the two competitions inasmuch as the same singers have competed and achieved success in both. Both organisations also display a strong sense of inner continuity over the years. Previous prize winners from earlier RMP competitions, Max Riebl (2016) and Nicholas Dinopoulos (2009) sang solos in Jephteand Sharon Kempton, who won the inaugural GEOG in 2003 gave a short recital that included a hair-raisingly virtuosic performance of an aria from Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. The prize-winners listed in this year’s programs included a raft of singers who have met with significant success in opera and oratorio both at home and abroad.

Also evident in the programs was the number of times the decision of the judges coincided with the audience favourites. This year, the poised maturity and warmth of soprano Cassandra Wright’s performance took out the RMP honours and mezzo-soprano Fleuranne Brockway was a very popular winner of the GAOG. The fact that they were both female singers raises a more general concern that was touched on by Hans Henkell during his speech at the GAOG: the relative scarcity of talented new male singers. If it had not been for the withdrawal of one RMP finalist, only one of the eight would have been male. Another possible concern was the fact that not one of the GAOG finalists came from Victoria. Fortunately, two Victorians were RMP prize-winners, with Christian Smith’s rich baritone securing second place and Shakira Tsindos’s pleasing mezzo-soprano third.

When participants described their involvement in the recent Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in terms of being in a chamber music festival rather than a competition,the emphasis was put on the thing that really matters: making music. The same could be said of the RMP Aria. Whatever the downside of vocal competitions, there is no doubt that they are valued by the singers themselves, lovers of classical singing and the generous sponsors who provide financial support.