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Film: "The Audition"

On Sunday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera's HD network of movie theaters is offering a different kind of broadcast: rather than live opera, it's showing a documentary film called "The Audition" about young singers trying to make it big. (To see a trailer, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.)

The film tracks the progress of the semifinalists of the Metropolitan Opera's National Grand Council Auditions in 2007, through to the finals and the announcement of the winners. (By coincidence, that happened to be the same year I followed the entire audition process over several months.)

The director, Susan Froemke, attempts to take you behind the scenes and reveal the workings of the process, following a template already established in the Met's audition features during its live broadcasts. To her credit, she focuses on the art rather than tarting up her narrative with the personal histories of the singers. We learn as much about the 11 finalists as is relevant to their experience of this event. Ryan Smith, a lovable tenor, explains that he quit singing for a while because of financial difficulties; Michael Fabiano, another tenor, talks about restraining his "New Jersey temper." But the film shows mainly rehearsals, coachings, and performances: it's for an opera audience more than a general one.

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Yet it's an oddly straightforward movie. Being produced by the Met, it can't afford to have too much of an opinion, so it walks the odd line of trying to give an insider view while treating all the singers' performances more or less equally. (That is, it selects a few singers to follow, and gives others significantly less air time; but it shorts some of the day's memorable performances and builds up some that were less good.) In this, it also follows the Met's established template: show the audience things, but give them the message that it's all wonderful.

And in filming opera, the camera has a leveling effect. It's hard to distinguish between a huge voice and a small one, or between a great performance and a not-so-great one. Just as the HD broadcasts have a way of making singers and productions look better than they do live, this film makes stars of some singers whom I didn't find that exciting when I heard them in the house. Smith, for one, sounded a lot more impressive. Of course, the viewer shares his triumph at overcoming his personal demons and sense of inadequacy.

As for Alek Shrader, the tenor who pulled off Donizetti's "Pour mon ame," with its nine high C's; I wasn't bowled over when I heard it live, but whenever he sang in the film I found myself with a huge grin on my face.

Indeed, viewers will come away loving all of the young singers. And that's no small thing. Nonetheless, the film falls a little flat, down to the "where-are-they-now" paragraphs about each singer, which are so general as to be stunningly uninformative - "sings with opera houses around the world" about someone whose career is not yet stellar, "pursuing his training" about one who is the darling of the nation's apprentice programs. (The film was finished too early to acknowledge the fact that Smith, whose audition victory launched him on a burgeoning career, died of lymphoma last November, age 31.)

More could have been made from all of this material, had the movie been allowed to have a stronger point of view. As it is, it had to fall back on pure aesthetics. One of its best moments was the sequence of the soprano Kiera Duffy, waiting to go on stage to start the program, running through her gestures in a kind of athlete's warm-up, in a red evening gown by a gray curtain: a bit of quiet poetry in a context that was, alas, a little too routine.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 18, 2009; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  news , opera  
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We enjoyed the movie even with all the flaws as pointed out by Anne. It was only from the commentary at the end of the movie that we found out that Angela Meade made her appearance at the Met as Elvira in Ernani. The youthful exuberance was contagious and we were ready at the end of the movie to go and watch a full opera on DVD at home.
On a different note, it was unsettling to see the movie theatre so empty when there was such a display of talent on screen. One invariably thinks of the enormous popularity of American Idol and similar singing contest shows, the 33 million YouTube hits for Susan Boyle and cannot help but wonder how many YouTube hits would Susan Meade get for her breathtaking “Casta Diva” or Alek Shrader for his luminous “Ah Mes Amis”?

Posted by: Mike-Klein | April 20, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Actually, my husband and I went to the screening at Mazza Galleries in Friendship Heights, and it was mobbed. We have learned that in order to get decent seats there for the HD operas, people have to arrive very early, and dodge those who save multiple seats for late-arriving friends.
You might try Mazza, Compared to Ballston, where you must stand in a line for a long time, Mazza is heavenly -- on the Red Line, and you can go right into the theater early, hear the clicking of the Met tech's sound device, and see excerpts from earlier broadcasts. Lately it's been mostly 'The First Emperor' -- I wish they'd show some others!

Posted by: sbuck | April 22, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

The film turned out to be a lot more interesting than I expected. There wasn't a bad singer in the lot, but the ones I remember the most are Michael Fabiano (did I get his name right?) and Alek Shrader, whose happy-go-lucky demeanor contrasted sharply with Fabiano's edginess and intensity. Both, of course, have completely different types of tenor voices, but in my own humble opinion, I found them outstanding. I was also much taken with Susan Meade's "Casta Diva" as well as the cabaletta. Her voice a highly individual color to it, and I found her excellent, despite her obviously large figure. All three of them selected three extremely demanding audition pieces, and it amazes me that their teachers allowed them to sing these pieces at all. I mean -- who auditions with Norma, Tonio (La Fille) and Lenski (Eugene Onegin)? I guess the game has become so competitive that these youngsters want to go straight for the jugular when it comes to audition pieces.
In conclusion, while perhaps not perfect as a film, I found "Audition" to be a wonderful experience. I understand that it will be broadcast on PBS in the fall of this year.

Posted by: belcanto26 | April 24, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

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