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January 21, 2010

Art vs. schlock: comparing Met Opera's 'The Audition' to UK's 'Pop Star to Opera Star'

Last night, I happened to catch a repeat broadcast (on WETA) of "The Audition," Susan Froemke's recent documentary about finalists in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

It wasn't the most interesting or informative show of its type, but the more I saw the young singers preparing their arias for the big finals, I kept thinking about the tripe currently on telly in the UK: "Pop Star to Opera Star." The video clips of the latter are popping up on YouTube, and I've had a morbid curiosity to check them out.

Can't say I know anything much about those pops stars, but I do know they can't sing opera after a few short weeks of coaching. Who could? And why should anyone attempt such a thing? And what's a real, honest-to-goodness tenor star,

Rolando Villazon, doing as a judge/coach on that travesty? Yikes. The end of civilization is a lot closer than I previously thought.

How moving it was, by comparison, to see the late, so promising Ryan Smith -- the tenor died from lymphoma a year after winning the auditions -- deliver "Federico's Lament" with great emotional power onstage, or, during a coaching session, deliver a subtle, rapt account of "Che gelida manina" that seemed incredibly personal.

The rather highly strung Michael Fabiano was another impressive tenor, not to mention the boyish Alek Shrader, who pulled off the nine high C's of "Pour mon ame" with an infectious spirit. And how eloquent Angela Meade's "Casta diva" was, how beautiful of tone and thoughtful of phrase.

Here were budding artists determined to improve, to master the fine details of the operatic art, to give themselves wholly to it. And then there are those silly pop stars play-acting (play-singing?) on TV, while viewers at home dial in their votes, "Idol"-style, and while the studio audience demonstrates an absurd Pavlovian urge to applaud any note of any type, at any time during a performance.

Marcella Detroit gets through an abbreviated "Casta Diva" by the skin of her throat. Darius croons "Nessun dorma," producing ecstasy in the studio audience, even though the tenor aria has been transposed into his baritone range and he still can't make much of a sound. And what to make of bouncy Danny Jones warbling "La donna e mobile"? Oh, dear.

It's all just too damn stupid for words. I wanted to believe there would be some redeeming value in all of this, that this pop-to-op exercise might a) treat opera with full respect and b) reinforce what makes opera great, challenging, rewarding, special. I can't detect any of that from the video clips, and based on those, I'd hate to sit through the whole show -- how much of Meat Loaf's inane comments form the judges box could any sane person take? Oh yes, Meat Loaf is one of the judges. 'Nough said.

Judge for yourself. I've posted a summary clip of "The Audition" and a few from that other thing:

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:58 PM | | Comments (10)


I love the "Meat Load" typo -- please don't correct it! He's a load, all right, especially in this context...

And, speaking of context, suicide really _is_ painless, by comparison. ;^)

Whoops. I'd better change it anyway, but I do rather like the slip. TIM

I think you forgot "The Audition" summary clip. Mind you, I saw the documentary, but I think those who didn't will be wondering where it is.

Great article! I also looked at these clips from the UK show out of morbid curiosity. OMG. What exactly is the point of it? What next? Teaching hip hop dancers how to dance ballet in two weeks, then have them dancing Giselle? Teaching a guitar player to play a violin?

Hey, thanks for alerting me to my in-haste goof. The other clip is now there (I hope). TIM

I thought you might like to know that both Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade are recent graduates of The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. We have been producing some top notch opera singers in recent years, including Stephen Costello, Ailyn Perez, Eglise Gutierrez, James Valenti, and of course, Joyce DiDonato. All these artists are scheduled to perform at our 75th Anniversary Concert on March 31st in the Kimmel Center. I hope you will be able to join us!

You guys sure do have the knack, and the track record to prove it. Thanks for alerting me to the concert. TIM

Well, I ask myself what is the goal of an operatic performance? To me it is delivering to the audience an experience of the drama and emotion of the situation in the opera, conveyed through both singing, orchestra, acting, stagecraft, etc. Did that happen to me when I heard these pop singers? Yes, I confess it did. I was moved and thrilled, maybe because the music and drama of these great works towers over anything a particular voice can or cannot accomplish.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. I wish I could share your reaction. I do get the idea that it's interesting to see musicians stretch their limits, but there needs to be context and a true purpose. What I don't see (just from the brief clips, I admit) is any attempt to connect the dots of real opera, to ensure that people understand that it's not just a technique of singing or mastering a foreign language. The impression I get is people cheering on a feat, not any serious form of artistic growth. And I wonder how opera, as opposed to merely singing more or less operatically, ends up looking to the folks who are so busy cheering every time their pop idols hit a higher or lower note than expected. TIM

I too, caught the rerun the other night. I found it fascinating in the sense that these people are preparing for such a huge moment in their lives, and it is hard not to feel their enthusiasm and nerves!

That being said, shows like this provide exposure to artists who may not otherwise be seen. It is a great opportunity for the singers. I believe there was a TV show in Canada called "Bathroom Divas" which aired 2 seasons a couple years back. It featured ordinary, amateur folk in a similar competition. The nice thing about this show is that it did not have the age limit imposed by most other shows. Participants often go on to further their operatic careers.

Of course, this reminds me of "The Auditions" Ryan who did not have the same opera educational background as some of the others. He did really well and is a boost for all wanna-be opera stars. R.I.P Ryan. Thanks for the music.

On that note, if you want to hear another wonderful amateur tenor who can belt out a beautiful high C, I suggest this link:

Have a nice day.

RG - While I agree that they should show more programs similar to "The Audition" on TV, I think it's wrong to put it in the same class as an amateur contest on TV. If I am not mistaken, Metropolitan Council Auditions is the most prestigious professional opera competition for young opera singers in North America. It also takes place every year - in fact, you can go to the finalists' concert or if you don't live near NYC, to regional finalists' concert: .

I wish they showed it and other serious opera competitions on TV every year. I do agree that there has to be more exposure for young artists, but also to opera in general. I remember in the 80s, there were many opera-related programs on TV. I remember watching a program on Bravo which at the time was very different from today or A&E (ditto) about a then-young opera singer Ashley Putnam working on "Addio del passato". So many stupid reality shows on TV nowadays and very little art.

I don't understand this fascination with amateurs today. Not when there are so many really talented professionals like those shown in "The Audition" who don't get nearly the same exposure and when public has no clue what operatic singing sounds like. Why do people consider an amateur more interesting or more deserving than people who've worked for years perfecting their art?

Regarding Ryan Smith - he had a period when he'd given up on singing, but he also had masters in music, at least according to this tribute biography written by his friend:

Excellent article!

One small correction: The aria with nine high C's you called "Pour mes ame" should have been listed as "A mes amis" (literally "to my friends"; "Pour mon ame" would mean "to my mind").

I just looked again at what I wrote, and I don't see the mistake you refer to. The full scene in question is "Ah, mes amis"; the portion within that scene that has all the Cs is "Pour mon ame." TS>

Firstly, how you can pass an opinion on a TV programme lasting 90 minutes, on the basis of a couple of clips, is poor reviewing in my book. Also, how are you possibly comparing like with like? We have your equivalent of "The Audition" called "Cardiff Singer of the World", a competition for trained Opera singers on the BBC every couple of years. 'Pop to Opera' is a light hearted entertainment show, and I can assure you there has been artisitc growth week to week (I've just watched show 3) and genuine moments of pleasure gained for any music lover.
Yes, I would agree, the clapping during singing is a silly American trait borrowed from your Simon Cowell shows, and I wish the teenage girls in the audience wouldn't scream till after the singing has finished. I could do without Meatloaf's inanities aswell. But what this show is doing is bringing beautiful and moving Arias to the likes of me who've never been to an Opera, and we've also had the opportunity to hear Rolando Villazon sing spectacularly in a guest performance this week (and Katherine Jenkins last week). What's wrong with that? We can see (and hear) the difference between 'Real' Opera singing and what these brave contestants are doing. So don't be so pompous and condemnatory about something on TV on the other side of the world.

I think I have a sense of how Obama must have felt during that grilling from the Republicans Friday in Baltimore. Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you have been moved by the music, and it's good to know that Villazon got a chance to do his stuff on the show. TIM

another correction to the correction above: "pour mon ame" would mean "for my soul", definitely not "to my mind"

Just found your comments. I am in the UK and here is what I think about this programme:

I can assure you that watching clips on Youtube will show you exactly what it is like. Without doubt the worst programme I have ever seen on British TV (and there are quite a few vying for this title!)

Thanks awfully for sharing. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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