Belvedere Singing Competition – Newsletter

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Full newsletter: 35th International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition finals tomorrow

Belvedere Singing Competition chronicles the making of young opera stars

Christina McEwan

With  some  90 singers  from all over the world, including 15 from South Africa singing this week in the last rounds of the 35th Belvedere Singing Competition in Cape Town on Saturday, there is huge pressure on them to be one of the 15 or so chosen on Thursday to singing in the final round.

The gala and prize-giving with the the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Kamal Khan on Satueday at Artscape at 6 pm.   The next round and the semi-finals take place at the Baxter Concert Hall until Thursday this week.

Kamal Khan, director of Opera at the SA College of Music at UCT, says: “The fact that the finals are being held here is a huge vote of confidence in South Africa .  “To establish a credible operatic career, young South Africans still need the Northern Hemisphere more than it needs them, but it is becoming clear with so many South Africans winning top prizes overseas that we are a country to be reckoned with”.

Recent winners, Khan says, include Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi  (second place) who is making a name for herself in Chicago, and of course Levy Sekgapane.  Both were taught by Van Schalkwyk, who has also taught many other young stars like Goitsemang  Lehobye  and Khanyiso Gwenxane. Other South Africans who have turned the spotlight on this country are  Pretty Yende and Musa Ngqungwana  as well as previous second prize winner Siyabulela Ntlale.

Winning a competition is not easy, and there are many pitfalls along the way, says Hanna van Schalkwyk, the Belvedere representative in South Africa. Van Schalkwyk is one of the organizing committee of three with Lize Thomas of Cape Town Opera and Louis Heyneman of the CPO.

“Singers make the mistake of thinking that if they have the voice, then the world’s opera houses will open their doors,” she says. “But it requires much more than that. If chosen or spotted, they need to be ready to step on those stages into virtually any role.  I often paraphrase Mimi Coertse who said that a singer is like a chair, and the voice is only one of four legs. Education, the ability to read music and musicality are the other three. Levy Sekgapane, last year’s winner, is one of the best prepared. He studied piano, sight-reads for a hobby, has such inner musicality and an amazing memory. No wonder he is flavour of the month in Europe!”

Van Schalkwyk notes that the arias chosen are critical.

“If you choose the wrong aria for your voice, you can be eliminated, facing not only disappointment but huge discouragement as well.  It can put a singer right off a career. This can happen without the right teacher. Singers must  put everything into one aria; so  much depends on the right choices a singer makes – the right aria, the right balance between nerves and confidence.”

There’s no second chance and while singers have the choice of 50 or 60 arias for their voice type (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone), the choice must be made in conjunction with teachers.   Some competitions don’t allow a change to the registration form.  The Belvedere has two compulsory arias, and then the singer choses three more. Judges will chose what each one sings in each round. This means that in the finals there may be two singers with the same aria, since judges choose what they think is best suited to the singer.  This means that the orchestra librarian needs to prepare 300 or so arias on the off-chance they will be sung, while the five piano accompanists also need to know them all.

Khan points to the expense.   “With sponsorship, more and more of our young singers could compete abroad and we are grateful to organizations like the Richard Wagner Society, FOCTO and Excellence out of Africa who have made it possible for those who do.  With the finals in Cape Town, we have the chance to show how good our singers are and we hope that there will be a larger number the jury considers good enough to go forward to the next rounds,” says Khan.

Singers need to find their own way to auditions and then to the country where the finals are held. Once there, they are responsible for accommodation. The Belvedere is helping those coming from Europe with a grant towards airfare.  Many overseas governments offer bursaries or assistance, bringing lustre to their own nationalities.

What makes competitions like these so exciting is that talent is spotted at every level, and if a singer doesn’t sing as well as one would have liked on the day, a casting director may see great potential for an engagement.

Both teachers and coaches are critical to get the singer to this level.  Teaching and coaching go hand in hand,” Khan says, “and both play a major role in a singer’s success.  The secret, perhaps, is not to withhold information but to give it all to young singers and allow them to absorb and, over the years, implement. Another secret is to guide them in the right repertoire. Too often they sing works their voices are not ready for and can ruin them.

“The kind of relationship between coach and trainer is for the benefit of the singer, a marriage without exclusivity.  Someone like Pretty Yende benefits from good coaches all the over the world,” he says.

For Van Schalkwyk, the teacher teaches technique, the coach rounds students musically.  She also says that sometimes singers without the right teacher rely on the internet for interpretation ideas, and the result is that too often they imitate other great singers. “This is noticed at once, and the young singer is usually eliminated, “ she says.

“It has been an amazing ride,” says Van Schalkwyk, “and we had no idea what was involved, from raising R2 million from generous sponsors like the Rupert Music Foundation to Remgro, the Graham & Rhona Beck Foundation, the Hiemstra Trust, Naspers and Tsogo Sun and then the work really started!”

The first round wraps up today and the semi-finals will be held at the Baxter Concert Hall on Wednesday and Thursday.  UCT students are welcome free of charge to the Baxter rounds on presentation of student cards. 0861 915 0000.[/fusion_text][/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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