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Luck of the Draw?
Anne Choe, Artistic Services Manager, OPERA America
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ArtistLink12/10/2007

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A successful career in any art form relies on a balance of skill, determination and luck. Alone, each of these elements will only get an artist so far. Much like poker, an essential part of the game is luck and, more importantly, how you let good luck or bad luck affect you. We see the affects of luck in the entertainment world all the time — artists and athletes fail because of their inability to get past a bad break. The Academy Awards® is a good example — Movie X, which was nominated last year but didn't win, is a far better example of filmmaking than Movie Y, which won this year — Movie Y just happens to be better than all the other dross that showed in theaters that year. Sometimes, it's simply a "right time, right place" scenario.

Opera Colorado Executive Advisor Peter Russell recently wrote about luck in the context of vocal competitions for the Colorado Opera Network e-newsletter, Opera Pronto.

"While I tended to see the cream rise pretty consistently among young singers in our field, usually by receiving scholarship monies from our best degree-granting programs, supplemented by prize-earnings in competitions, I've also found on many occasions when judging competitions that we as adjudicators are not necessarily rewarding the top prizes to young singers of truly outstanding potential.

"We'd all like nothing better to be mindless boosters, and pretend that the young man or woman who is receiving a top prize of $10,000 (or even more) is truly destined for great things. But we judges too often find ourselves in situations where cash prizes must be awarded (usually because that prize is endowed in perpetuity in memory of an opera-loving, departed loved one), regardless of the relative merits of the contestants in the greater picture of the realities and expectations of the professional opera world.

"It has been thrilling to be one of the judges for the Great Lakes Regional Finals of the Met Auditions in the early 1990s, and to discover a young, completely unknown mezzo-soprano such as Stephanie Blythe, to whom we unanimously awarded first prize, or to have had a similar experience in Toronto in the late 1980s, when we sent Ben Heppner as the regional winner to compete in New York. But I've lost track of the times that we judges have sat around the table, talking ourselves into awarding a first prize to someone merely because they had the fewest vocal and technical problems ("Well, at least he's a bass, which is the rarest vocal category, and, at 27, maybe he can fix his upper register if he listens to us and changes teachers," or "I know there will be much better lyric sopranos in the finals in New York, and there's nothing particularly special about her, but at least, unlike the others, there's nothing terribly wrong with her either.")

"I believe it is misleading to young singers to falsely inflate their expectations by awarding them substantial cash prizes in such cases. Sadly, it happens all too often. One of the main reasons my former colleague at the Met, Gayletha Nichols, pushed through a change in the Met National Council Auditions by-laws to completely open what had formerly been strict geographical boundaries was to insure that the best talents, no matter their place of residence, would be rewarded in all regions of the country, and to even out the distribution of those coveted top prizes (which, I should add, volunteers work assiduously to fund).

"If anything, we've now reached a point where artist training programs for aspiring opera singers have proliferated to the point that many young people are admitted to them to fill quotas, especially if one of their key functions as part of such a training program is to provide the parent opera company with a young, agile chorus."

The system we use to determine the relative merits of Susie Soprano in Omaha versus Sally Singer in Boston may be flawed, but it is the system with which we have to work. There are so many elements beyond a singer's control — raw talent, voice type, external financial resources, hip to waist ratio — that it is senseless to spend any amount of time being concerned about them. (If only it were so easy!) While singers cannot change the system, they can take responsibility for the elements over which they do have control — technique, language skill, collegiality, informed artistry and business savvy. Don't count on your lucky rabbit's foot to get the job done.

Special thanks to Peter Russell and to Charles L. Ralph of Opera Pronto for permission to reprint his comments in their entirety.

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