Catty commentary, or what's not useful for opera

Catty commentary, or what's not useful for opera

Jenna Simeonov

I love when big opera events are broadcast for the world to see. The BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year Competition is one of those big events, and I was doubly thrilled to hear soprano Aviva Fortunata representing Canada.

The Cardiff broadcast looks a bit like a mix between mainstream talent shows (So-and-So-Country’s Got Talent, etc.) and TSN; I’m not opposed to the preamble, introducing the singers with an interview and building hype with all the backstage footage. What I didn’t like was the commentary.

I was appalled to hear what was being said about these young singers; perhaps the idea was to provide context and insider information for listeners, but I think it was just mean.

On BBC Radio Wales, tenor Wynne Evans and soprano Rebecca Evans gave a recap of each competitor after their performance, including many opinions on how they sang. Thoughts like, “that, tonight, was like a bulldozer going through the aria, wasn’t it?” Or, “she may well have been singing the phone directory.” Or charmingly, “and when he went down for those low notes, he opened his mouth so wide, I saw what he had for lunch.”

They replayed clips of the singers’ performances, I suppose to validate their criticism. Replaying a Messiah aria sung by Ryan Speedo Green, Wynne said, “I think this shows a couple of things, really, that he lacks this smooth legato line, and he doesn’t have the low notes….[they listen to three bars]…So, that phrase is quite chopped up, isn’t it?” Coming from another singer, I can only describe this as catty and cheap shots for media attention.

They harped on repertoire choice for several of the singers, which always seems like a pointless exercise when we’re talking about competitions. Wynne uselessly quipped about one of these aria, “I can tell you now that it’s officially, right, the most boring aria in the world.” Rebecca agreed, mentioning she had “never heard of it in my life.” (So??) She followed up with contradictory advice, saying “If you want to sing this repertoire, look beyond, push yourself to discover new pieces.” A pointless exercise, and apparently arbritrary, too.

I’ve heard that Cardiff finalists are warned about the vitriol and mean-spirited commentary that comes with the BBC broadcasts, both on the radio and on TV. A better tactic, I think, would be to not have this kind of talk at all. I’m not sure how much control Cardiff has over commentators like Wynne Evans and Rebecca Evans, but I find it gross, especially coming from two singers (Rebecca has also been a juror for the Cardiff competition). They seemed to take delight in ripping apart the Cardiff finalists, when they should know well the enormous amount of work and vulnerability that goes into these major competitions.

I suppose opinions are harmless, and these commentators have the same freedom of speech as we wish for everyone else. It’s entirely backward, though, to talk about bulldozers and choppy legato when opera has a strong reputation for being elitist and exclusive. I don’t know very many singers who would voluntarily trash-talk other singers after they sang at Cardiff, and I’m glad that it’s so rare. Singers of this generation know much better than to attack their own, even if it’s with opinions, and even if they think they’re objectively right.

Mean-spirited commentary like that of Wynne Evans and Rebecca Evans (sold as input from experts) does absolutely nothing for opera except prove that stereotypes are correct.

Then again, I’m from Canada, and the singers are super nice here.

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