Jennifer Witton wins By Voice Alone Final 2019

A new competition challenging unconscious bias in the operatic audition process concluded last night at Kings Place in London

424 singers applied for the crowdfunded competition, 256 of which were sopranos. Seven finalists featured, including one baritone, a mezzo-soprano, and five other sopranos from the UK and Europe.

The competition was founded by Melanie Lodge who is the driving force behind online platform Audition Oracle that connects singers with classical music and opera companies, and the Singers’ Preparation Award, a funding mechanism giving singers access to ongoing development services.

All of the first round auditions were conducted with a screen separating judges and artists, meaning decisions were made solely on the character portrayed by the voice. A short film played during the interval illustrated the obvious benefits to the performer: that in a moment when they needed to give of their best to prove their worth they were able to focus on performance without the additional stresses and strains of preparing themselves for an artificially ‘formal’ set up.

Unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat

Come the final – an unpretentious and satisfyingly upbeat affair – there is then a stronger sense of self-assurance for the performer knowing as they do that their selection has been based on their instrument and the way they use it.

And in the intimate studio-like of Kings Place’s Hall Two, the proximity between audience and performer intensified the immediacy, making it easier to create connections. Jeannette Louise van Schaik did this well with a sophisticated performance during which she maintained a captivating stillness; her articulation and enunciation was delightful unfussy yet precise. Emerging Artist prizewinner Chloe Morgan capitalised on the intimacy of the space with a captivating sweet charm in Charpentier’s Depuis du jour.

First prize winner Jennifer Witton concluded the evening with the complete package – a compelling characters from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and Massenet’s Cendrillon. There was warmth and strength in performances which conveyed a sense of solidity and power throughout.

Confronting my own unconscious bias

I was particularly surprised by the impact of baritone Themba Mvula.

When you know that the singer on stage has secured his place as a result of a blind audition round, then there’s a temptation to adopt the same approach during a live performance yourself. When I did that I became aware of the assumptions I had about what a baritone should look like – my own unconscious bias and a reflection of the warm, rich and enveloping sound of a baritone voice.

That Themba – slim, unassuming, and decidedly unfussy – didn’t match my assumption demonstrated why the competition is important and helped explain why the event appealed to me.

By Voice Alone isn’t just about consolidating a commitment to industry-wide diversity of opportunity in the operatic and classical music world, it’s also drawing the audience closer to the fundamentals of the artform: the music and its production. And the By Voice Alone final demonstrated that with a pleasingly entertaining and authentic event.

Opera: By Voice Alone seeks financial support for its ongoing development. To pledge support, visit the competition crowdfunding page.

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