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Commentary

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14 Feb 2007

The Handel Singing Competition 2007 – Win or Lose?

Singing competitions are a mixed blessing.

For some singers they can become a way of life, travelling from continent to continent, from jury to jury, seeking that golden fleece of success with which to adorn their CV and give them, they hope, access to commercial success on the opera and recital stage, and even (less likely these days) a recording contract. For others they can be nothing but frustrating and counter-productive, and are quickly abandoned as a route to a worthwhile career in opera.

A relatively recent recruit to the roster of such competitions is in the specialised field of baroque singing, and specifically of Handel’s music: the London Handel Singing Competition. There has been a significant increase in the popularity of this composer’s vocal music over recent decades, and even the most staid of traditional opera houses can usually boast at least one of Mr. Handel’s masterpieces in their current repertoire. With this change has come the perceived need for specialist singers trained in the idiom and comfortable with its demands, and this is where the London Singing Competition finds its niche.

Established in 2002 by musical director Laurence Cummings, the format has not changed a great deal from those early days, except that all applicants are now heard, either live or on CD, and the Competition Finals are held now in the middle of the annual London Handel Festival, based in the composer’s old church of St. George’s, Hanover Square. Looking through the requirements for entry, it is obvious that the students and young performers are expected to do a lot of work: research and carefully thought-out repertoire is at a premium. The early rounds to hear the 70-80 applicants are held at the Royal Academy of Music in London, although singers from overseas can send in suitably-recorded CDs instead. After that, the Semi Finals and Final are public affairs in front of the panel of Adjudicators and live audience, and take the form of a semi-formal concert. Like some other competitions, the HSC has introduced an Audience Prize, and this is an opportunity to both empower the listeners, involving them in the eventual outcome, and to give the singers a second chance of success. It is not uncommon for this prize to go to a different young performer than the one chosen by the jury – and who’s to say who will be proven right in time? As has been seen over and over again, win or lose, just appearing in the Semis or Finals can have a great impact on a singer’s career as the events are always attended by music business folk on the look out for new talent.

At the risk of being invidious, some very interesting and talented singers have done well at the HSC, and their names are already becoming well known in baroque circles both in the UK and further afield: Andrew Kennedy, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth Atherton, Iestyn Davies, and Nathan Vale, to name just a few, have all made their mark since reaching the Finals over the past five years and have embarked on promising careers in opera.

Looking ahead, the HSC is intending to broaden its remit and wants to encourage more foreign singers to apply. To this end, they are offering limited bursaries to help with travelling costs, and this can only result in an even more exciting competition of the highest standard in the future.

This year’s Final is on Monday April 23rd, at 7pm, at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, London, and the Adjudicators will be Ian Partridge, Catherine Denley, Michael Chance, Lindsay Kemp and Stephen Roberts.

For more information on application go to: http://www.london-handel-festival.com/competition.htm

Sue Loder, 2007

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