Note: this review is a re-post from April, 2009.
The Metropolitan Opera’s HD series presented a different kind of opera experience this past Sunday—a screening of a documentary film titled The Audition. The film, directed by documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke and produced by the Met’s Peter Gelb, told the story of the final days of competition of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The film picks up the story as the eleven semi-finalists are being chosen for the last week of preparation in New York before the final competition with full audience and orchestra on the Met stage. She follows most of the singers through rehearsals and personal moments, much of it in walk-and-talk segments as they thread their way through the metaphorical labyrinthine backstage of the Met.
Although the film does not cover it, the competition process begins with well over a thousand aspiring singers across the country; this number is whittled down to twenty or so regional winners through local and regional auditions. From that twenty, eleven become semi-finalists; and from that eleven, five or six are chosen as finalists. It goes without saying that to emerge as one of those five or six puts a singer on a favored path (no guarantees, though) toward an opera career, not only at the Met, but in major opera houses around the world.
My fear going in had been that the film might go for the shallow side and gloss over the inevitable un-pleasantries or personal agonies that arise in a competition with so much at stake. It is to Ms. Fromke’s credit that she kept an intriguing, equitable balance; she revealed just enough of the singer’s personalities and the brutal facts of judging to keep it interesting. Any more and the film would have been called “The Singers”; any less and it would have been just another pleasant promotional film for the Met.
It is clear that Froemke’s editing choices came not from a total objectivity, but was structured by her knowledge of who had won. Most of her finished film is spent following three tenors who do, in fact, emerge victorious. Alek Shrader is a 25-year-old tenor with boyish good looks, and the ability to pull off the high C’s in “Ah! mes amis,” from Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment. Michael Fabiano, on the other hand, is a brooding, serious young man with a fabulous voice who looks much older than his 22 years. He implies in his on-camera speeches, that the pleasantries among the singers are hypocritical as everyone is self-interested. His voice will open doors; hopefully, his personality won’t close them.
The third tenor’s story is heartbreaking, to say the least. Ryan Smith was a thirty-year old genial, yet overweight, singer whose road there had been filled with obstacles of all sorts. His performance was nothing less than brilliant, and he emerged one of the six finalists. In a sad postlude, the film revealed that Mr. Smith, after making a Met debut in Verdi’s Ernani and after joining the roster of the Chicago Lyric Opera, died last November of lymphoma.
Obviously, to get to this point in the process, all of the singers had significant talents. Yet, the message here is that it must go much farther and much deeper than that. As Froemke herself explained: “The film is really about whether these young singers have what it takes to transcend their fears, walk on stage and face their futures.”