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Just in: Korean wins ‘weak’ Belvedere singing contest

Our colleague Basia Jaworski came away disappointed from the final of the Belvedere Competition. None of the singers was outstanding. The winner was a 32 year-old Korean baritone, Dong-Hwan Lee. Read Basia here (in Dutch).


Contests that set the upper age limit so high will never discover real talent. They merely run a gamut of competent singers who, mostly, already have agency contracts and staff jobs in major houses. It was much the same at Cardiff Singer of the World. If these contests are to continue – and a growing body of opinion doubts their usefulness – the upper age must come down to 27.


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  1. While I agree that the major competitions – Cardiff, Belvedere, Operalia – should be far more clear about what they are looking for, and what level of professional experience it’s acceptable to have when entering, 32 is already a very low limit when you consider that heavier voices – basses especially – mature later, so at 32 are either barely out of college or have been holding down modest careers as jobbing session singers while they grow into their voices. Surely a lower age limit on such competitions would serve only to mean that the vast majority of people with the quality to make it through to the final stages will be lyric-and-lighter voices?

    If competitions of similar repute existed to discover singers with, eg, Wagnerian potential, with age limits at 40 and beyond, it wouldn’t be such an issue that the age-32 limit on most generic opera competitions already exclude such voices. But they don’t.

    • I agree 27 is too young. Many singers don’t come into their own until after that age. As someone who runs 2 competitions and won numerous in the past, I can assure you competitions are vital especially for singers in need of financial assistance to gain access to expert coaches and teachers. Competition encourages excellence, are we to get rid of the Olympics and every sport then. In 2014 the inaugural Elizabeth Connell Prize for aspiring dramatic sopranos of the world will have an age limit of Under 35 and that was the great diva’s wish from someone who has been there and done that. All enquiries:

  2. Malcolm James says:

    The problem is that the lower voices tend to take longer to mature, so this might discriminate against Baritones and basses. In the final of Cardiff Singer of the World, people were impressed by the Croation bass-baritone, but his voice is not yet fully mature. Possibly a great bass-baritone in the making, but not there yet. These competitions are about finding someone who is the finished article and can step up from a decent career in somewhere like San Francisco to a major international career.

    The problem with singing competitions is the same one that has bedevilled other competitions since the 1970s. Too many winners disappear into obscurity after their 15 minutes of fame on the back of the win. We will never know the politics of the individual jury decisions, but how many of these were compromise decisions, because some of the jury loved pianist A because s/he had flair and individuality, but others hated him/her for the same reasons?

  3. I absolutely agree with Ruth. Norman, many of the past winners of the Belvedere (when it was in Vienna) were aged well over 27, did not have major contracts or agents and had their careers made by winning. Please see Rachel Willis-Sorensen as an example-she made her debut as the Countess at Convent Garden on the strength of her winning both the Opera and Operetta sections of the Belvedere.

    Perhaps the problem with the Belvedere this year was that it was in Amsterdam, not Vienna??

    Also, looking at the voice types of many who have won or sung in the finals over recent years, there’s a disproportionate number of lighter voices. Rachel (who has a big, luscious lyrico-spinto Soprano) was a major exception.

    They would be better if the age limit was 35, not 32.

    So many voices are completely uncooked at 27.

  4. youngsop says:

    Have to agree with Ruth on all points, but particularly that of age. A cut-off point of 32 already excludes many heavier voices that simply aren’t ready to compete on a level with their lighter-voiced, technically-complete-much-sooner colleagues. There is a reason there are comparatively few ‘real’ Verdi/Wagner/big Strauss voices around, and that is mostly to do with the difficulty of staying on course and financially afloat for the much longer apprenticeship period these voices must go through. There are one or two competitions which have recognised this, but very few. Young Artist Programmes often fall into this trap as well, with cut-offs for women often hitting at 28, and men at 30 – too soon for virtually any young singer with the vocal potential to sing the roles critics and management so often bemoan as ‘uncastable’ or ‘under-subscribed’. (Honourable mention to the Jette Parker, among others, which does not have an age limit.). There will be the occasional exception, of course, but the vast majority of heavier voices age out of these valuable paths into the profession before they are anywhere near vocal maturity.

  5. Sheridan Edward says:

    Arbitrary age limits are always frustrating as they will naturally favour voices that mature earlier. They also favour those who’ve followed a conventional pathway rather than singers perhaps coming to the profession later. Surely better eligibility criteria would be based on experience, etc, to find singers of a similar standard.

    • Rory Musgrave says:

      I would agree that the arbitrary nature of age limits is a difficulty. I myself am a heavier baritone that started later. As a result of this I am heading towards ineligibility when it comes to YAP’s, I am 29 turning 30. I wonder if the criteria could be based on the year of graduation rather than an age limit? Also I would agree that the criteria for the Belvedere was unclear regarding standard. Where they simply looking for the best of the professional voices? While panels will differ from year to year they could be guided by an underlying ethos that would focus particular attention up or down the experience range. Having said all this I found the organisation very smooth and pleasant, with the Dutch presence professional and relaxed.

  6. I think it would be a good idea to seperate the young singers from the mature singers, or may be better said from the “big fach” singers.
    In the Belvedere competition I heard and saw a lot of real young, very promising, singers who were not ready yet, and therefor couldn’t go to the finals, although can be expected to be better than the older singers they were competing with once they will have the same age. I would love to have a competition where these young singers compete without the older ones.
    I would also like to have a competition for dramatic voices only, voices who need more time to mature and won’t fit into any competition with an age limit under 30.

    • youngsop says:

      You make an interesting point, Wiebke, which Ruth also touched on. Competitions now seem to be looking for the finished product – someone ready to step onto a major stage tomorrow in a principal role; indeed, many of the recent winners of major competitions have already made that step – rather than potential or promise. Inevitably, that weights the decisions (and the finals) towards the lighter voices which are ready sooner than their heavier-voiced peers, as Emily pointed out.

      A really big voice in the final of the competitions I competed in before hitting the dreaded 3-0 (and no, having reached 30 does not make me not a ‘youngsop’ – for my fach, I’m barely a toddler!) was indeed a rarity, and usually, if there at all, a baritone or occasionally bass-baritone (often Korean or Chinese) at the very edge of qualifying age, rather than a dramatic soprano/tenor/mezzo or bass.

      Many of my lighter-voiced peers are well-launched into good careers by the time they hit 30, or at least well on their way and a lot further ahead than those of us gifted (lumbered?) with a louder-than-average vocal apparatus. For those singers, competitions often cease to be necessary well before the arbitrary cut-off points that are usually imposed. For the potential dramatic singer, the voice is just coming into its’ own and the need for exposure is just beginning at that age, or even later, for male voices. How does one solve this dichotomy between voices? I’m not sure, but I am quite convinced that lowering the age limits will not have the desired effect.

  7. Interesting comments above about the age-limit. “So many voices are completely uncooked at 27.” – I absolutely agree. 3 of the finalists were South African. In South Africa, given the extreme inequality of the education system and the difficulties of the political past which we are still trying to address, a lower age-limit simply would exclude too many really gifted singers who have not had an equal access to education. I also think of women who might have children and take a longer route, or even fathers who plan to be particularly involved in the parenting.

    In South Africa we have many school-Eisteddfods and choral competitions with operatic components, but as you can imagine, the training is of a highly variable level. It is not unknown here to have Donna Anna or Sarastro prescribed for 15 year -olds. The miracle is not only that some of them can actually sing this repertoire, but that some even survive it and make it into an opera school. Some of them get stuck in an opera chorus and don’t build a local career, and are only given a real indication of how gifted they actually are when they enter competitions such as these.

    That said, a good singer is a good singer, no matter what age. For us in South Africa, we rejoice in a competition such as this. Some of these singers do not even get understudy-roles here because there is no agent- or audition-system by which they can not only ride the elevator to a career (if not fame), but actually have the opportunity to measure themselves against others and actually hone their craft.

    The reality is, that just like their are more pianists than concert-halls, there are more opera-singers now than ever. If one listens to some early recordings of famous singers – I”m thinking in particular of a recent box-set of Early Kiri te Kanawa – one can be glad that they were not too harshly judged on those and had a chance to mature into real artists.

    I think not all competitions should be the same. Some are for young talent, some are for older voices, some for operatic voices, some for lieder, some for early music. It does seem bizarre even to compare a soprano to a bass, exactly as it is bizarre to com[are an obiost to a pianist. Yet there are competitions where this happens.

    What the Belvedere has done for these 3 South Africans in the finals, plus the others in the “team” that went to Amsterdam, is that it has given them a huge public profile in the local music world. The injections it gives to singers such as last year’s audience prize winner Hlengiwe Mkwanazi is invaluable.

    But interesting points. I love your posts, they always make one think!

  8. Totally disagree with 27 year old limit and wholeheartedly with the higher limit – so many voices need the extra time to mature fully and those years between 27 and 32 are so important – at least judging from my personal experience and what I see all around me.
    Interesting discussion, enjoy your posts. Greetings from Amsterdam

  9. Basia Jaworski says:

    Albert – two of the three South Africans were (much) younger then 30.
    Try to read my review to know who my favorite was!

    But how can you compare a South Korean of 32, with already engagements at the big opera houses to a starting (and very promising!) 25 years old bas?
    Plus: he wasn’t as good, he really wasn’t!

    • youngsop says:

      Surely then the question is whether the jury should be rewarding promise or achievement, not what age the competitiors are? A 32-year old future heldentenor might have the same amount of promise as a 22 year old tenorino, but I can guarantee you he won’t have the same polish and level of professional achievement as a tenore leggiero of his own age.

  10. Cheryl Forbes says:

    This kind of comment is all that’s wrong with the business. For various reasons that I won’t go in to here, I have missed out on most competitions and now that I am 38, there’s nothing left (I would think) for me to enter. I would love to enter a competition for the chance to get an agent etc….but I don’t think there’s many extend to the age of 40. Talent is talent. Regardless of age, career path, current professional status etc etc. If you’ve got exceptional talent and have maybe missed opportunities when you were younger, there should be ways to showcase it when you become a mature singer. There are various reasons why some people haven’t gone down the conventional training route (although I did to a greater degree) and they shouldn’t be penalised by their age if they’ve got the top drawer talent that’s sadly lacking from a huge proportion of the business.

    • Basia Jaworski says:

      Dear Cheryl,
      I absolutely agree with you. Even at 40 you have the right to get the chance.
      _My_ point was: how can you compare someone with _already_ a carrier and engagement at the big opera houses with someone who just starts???It’s not honest. Especially if you are not _as_ good.and the winner wasn’t.

      I think Wiebke had a point. And I think it’s about a time to think (and to rethink!) all the competitions.
      Something has to change.

  11. Shelly Welch says:

    While I agree with the sentiment, I think that competing against professionals has helped my singing ability more than anything. Part of me knows it isn’t entirely fair that I’m losing to someone that I just watched performing onstage, but as long I receive feedback that is well-thought out and insightful, the experience is worth it. I’m 27 right now and I’m only starting to really compete. I find that singers in my level and age all sing alike. I’m not sure why that is. If I have the same problems and opportunities as a group of people with different training and teachers and experiences, why are we so alike? I don’t have the same immediacy and incentive to improve if I don’t see someone break the mold. It’s frustrating, but if the reality is that I’m competing against professionals, I will learn to compete like a professional.

  12. Dear Cheryl,
    I DO agree with you, BUT
    There are certain roles you sing in your “youth” (I mean up to 40) and there are roles you start singing
    from appr. 40 (there are always exceptions) and up. To be able to sing the heavier roles, the ones after appr. 40, you also need the expierence to build them upon the roles you sang earlier. It is not only about the music and notes you have to be able to sing, you also have to learn and feel the roles and find and train the singers-stamina and expierence how to manage emotionally.
    A person who starts later and didn’t get all that kind of expierences on the way, will not be taken for the heavier roles, as it is a big risk for the houses to do so.

    As a late starter myself (first singinglesson at 24) luckily managed to get into the system at 33. After 2 years of Phantom of the Opera, having sung 600x the role of Carlotta Giudicelli, an intendant recognized the great stamina you get from doing that and dared to take me as Aida/Aida! For appr. 10 years I sang all the wonderful roles of my fach (Tosca, Aida, Senta, Elisabeth etc.etc.etc.) but now I have to face the fact that ‘they’ want younger singers for that repertoire and I am too old (although I could sing them even better now). This is life, we have to accept it.
    I still sing better than ever, but unfortunately have a lot less work. Too young for the old lady and too old for Tosca… Well, I’ll be an old lady soon and expect a new carreer move..:)
    For the time being I grounded my own operastudio to help new colleges to get into the system. Part of which is
    learning roles for there resume. I create possibilities for them to sing the roles and hope it will help them get into the operasystem. And I DO take older starters, as they need these expierences even more!

  13. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Age is always a contentious issue. Back around 2000, there was a 20-year-old French soprano on the Victoires de la Musique Classique singing – wait for it – Dich teure Halle under Jan Latham-Koenig and his Strasbourg orchestra. The presenters went apeshit describing how brilliant she was, how she was the future of French Wagnerian singing etc etc and I remember getting livid and saying to my wife that, if this girl believed any of the rubbish these so-called experts were spouting, then she’d be finished by the age of 25. In the event, I was a year out. She ‘retired’ from the operatic stage at 26. Her voice at 20 was remarkable, but it was only twenty years old. She was young, blond and beautiful and the Crépescule de la Déesse was pre-programmed, particularly in a business which now promotes appearance over talent. A real waste. Singing competitions with such a low cut-off age basically play into the same trap, particularly with heavier voices or those destined to become so in a few years.

    Many people cite Horst Stein as their best Wagner conductor ever. Would this man have a career today? Brad Pitt he certainly wasn’t…

  14. I think it is all the more remarkable that there were no outstanding singers.

    It seems strange to me that as we have sought to formalise the training of singers into the tertiary education sector over the past thirty years, and through developments in our knowledge around the physiology of singing that we see fewer and fewer exciting new voices, big or small.

    Given that the great voices no longer present by 30 perhaps we need to do two things.

    1) seriously examine the current methods for attracting singers
    2) increase age limits on singing competitions to enable bigger voices, or those who started later, to participate.

  15. 1) should have read seriously examine the current methods for training singers

  16. Mauricio Fernandez says:

    Dear opera lovers,
    Many of your discussion points are really valid in order to start a profound analysis of the need of having singing competitions at all. As a casting director of one of the most ambitious and internationally recognized concert series in the world, I have been attending competitions for the past 30 years (both as a jury member and as an observer) and if you ask me now who were the real stellar singers then I would have to dig deep into my memory in order to give you a honest answer.
    For me it’s a fact that most of the really interesting singers who in the meantime have built an international career were not even given a place in the semifinal rounds or they never got a prize at all. Why sometimes jury members grant a prize to singers who in our eyes/ears don’t deserve them is a fact we have to live with during all competitions and I believe it’s a waste of time to try to delve into the minds of those who award them, be it artistic directors, casting directors, regisseurs, singers or teachers. The discussion we need to start for the coming years, that is, if we really want to emphazise artistry in order to secure the future of opera worldwide, is to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why competitions are needed at all: are they solely for enhancing the network of the jury members or should they serve the needs of talented young singers and help them build up a decent career that will last for years to come and allow them to live a life worth the price they pay in terms of personal sacrifice and financial investment. Let’s please not forget that singers have a mission as do have all honest musicians and artists: uplifting the souls of the audience, be it in the theatre or in the living room and respecting the legacy of composers without forgetting that opera is a living art form and should be fed everyday in order to prevent it’s passing away!

  17. Richard Barker says:

    One of the greatest problems of opera in general these days is that competition between agents is such that they are looking for singers far too young and pushing them into heavy repertoire before they are ready for it, therefore shortening their careers which started too early anyway.
    Lowering the age limits of major competitions would make this situation worse, not better.

  18. Norman, you sigh that when the age limit is set at 32 these competitions become the province of developed artists rather than succeed in “discovering” new talent. But unless you’re already a pretty well developed artist you can’t sing this repertoire at all.

    And no one really gets “discovered” as an opera singer:

    • The problem is competitions, not age. Many now question whether contests are the best way to advance singing careers.

      • Agreed. But the opera-loving public seems to want them. If the competition backers were seriously asking the question, “What’s the best way to identify vocal talent and artistic genius and ensure its development?” they’d likely come up with a very different answer, but its implementation wouldn’t provide anything approaching the same level of entertainment and pageantry.

  19. Guus Mostart says:

    The major problem with this year’s Belvedere Wettbewerb is that the Amsterdam organisation – unwisely – decided to advertise this competition beforehand as the Mother-of-all-singing-Competitions in order to drum up local interest; comparing it to the Olympics and Wall Street. Naïve to say the least and rather far fetched as Ms. Jaworsky’s review confirms. There have since been unsavoury comments made about Ms. Jarowsky by the Amsterdam organisation on the Place de l’Opera blog. Another commentator has even been advised by the chairman of this organisation, to seek psychiatric treatment. Obviously Belvedere Amsterdam has a problem with criticism.

    • Perhaps Ms. Jaworsky’s way of publicly putting down a fine singer who had the misfortune to win a competition over some contestants she liked better might have caused the one or other hard feeling. I wouldn’t find it too hard to see why.

  20. hans van verseveld says:

    As an operalover I am visiting for more than 55 year opera in theater and operaconcerts.
    So I am happy that I can say, that I heard singers live in opera and concert like Callas, Tebaldi, Brouwenstijn, Caballé, Sutherland, Miricioiù, Deutekom, Verrett, Bumbry, Bergonzi, Pavarotti, Domingo Osborne etc etc. Magda Olivero in her many Opera Concerts in Amsterdam I will never forget. So I can say that I have a big experience in opera till now. In Amsterdam we are blessed with the unequalled Zaterdagmatinee where Mauricio Fernandez, the castingdirector, us always brings new and sometimes unknown singers. Frequently we hear there very young singers also Dutchman. Always big quality and well prepared and that was exactly what I missed last saturday in the Amsterdam Muziektheater. Not even one Dutchman in the finale and too many unexperienced singers. I know that they must start young and unexperienced, but there must be more quality also at the beginning of a carriere.

  21. I think we need more operas. It was noted that there are more opera singers now than ever; but we have few operas going and only a few roles (what? Six or seven major roles per voice type?). I think we need to rethink opera, and move away from grand opera and back into its psudo-theatrical origins. Why not scale down to a troupe with a 15-20 piece orchestra, 3/4/5 singing roles, and lighter staging — and commission composers to write shorter operettas are more accessible to the general public?

  22. I agree with “rethinking opera,” I disagree with lowering the age limit, how about( and this may sound childish and also blatently obvious), limiting to people who have not won a bunch of competitions already! That would give a fair chance I believe. I myself am a bit passed 27, but have hesitated to enter too Many comps due mainly to financial constraints, which maybe at 32 I won’t have I mean 20
    Is the new 30 right! Especially what with the classical music climate in the last few years!

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