Opera Singers' Dreams Collide With Reality At National Auditions

With their sights set on the Metropolitan Opera, budding performers vie for attention, awards, and a foot in the door

ASIDE from a creaking radiator and the whistling of a cold wind outside, there is silence in the room in which a mezzo-soprano is preparing to sing Mozart's ``Peter Grimes.'' She faces three judges who will decide if she has a voice that can rouse the most discriminating ears.

The scene is the Boston Conservatory of Music, and the event is the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The mezzo is one of some 60 men and women whose goal is to be on stage for the Winners Concert in New York in March, where 10 finalists from across the country will make their entrances as opera's next generation.

Reaching the final concert is a particularly lofty aim, however. For singers even to have a shot at advancing beyond the first round, they train for as long as 15 years in languages, theatrical roles, and finding their voice.

Even then, some veterans of two or more of the Metropolitan's auditions find they cannot hold out against the stiff competition.

``It introduces you to life in the real world, all this constant competition,'' says Jana Baty, one of the younger singers at 26. Last year, she reached the New England regional finals; the overall regional winner advances to New York for an additional two rounds. ``You have to audition for all kinds of [opera] performances; you learn to deal with the pressure.''

On the day of her initial audition for this year's competition, Ms. Baty says her biggest concern was ``doing songs I hadn't done so much in the past. I tried to guess what the judges would want to hear - it's very nerve-racking to not know. But I'd say 8 out of 10 times I'm right.''

The Metropolitan auditions are carrying on the purpose for which they were intended: to give the best new voices in opera the exposure needed to launch careers. The first auditions were held on radio in 1935, the only way for unknown singers to be heard. These were replaced by the national program in the 1950s.

While the competition originally pointed singers toward performing with the Metropolitan Opera and attracted mostly New Yorkers, the event has a much more national scope today.

The Metropolitan sponsors the event, but the company says such auditions serve American opera as a whole, and not just the Metropolitan.

In 1977, the auditions stopped the practice of naming a single winner and offering that singer an immediate contract. Instead, there were 10 winners, each receiving $10,000. The idea was to encourage the most-seasoned young voices to participate and to filter out those who weren't ready.

``It brings generations of singers into the limelight, as opposed to the Miss America contest,'' says Steven Blier, a judge for the first round of this year's New England auditions.

``The potential exposure is great,'' says Jennifer Swanson, who has been training as a soprano for 13 years. ``There's the money, of course. But the best thing is the opportunities.''

Pauline Ho Bynum, the New England regional chairwoman of the national auditions, says anyone serious about pursuing an opera career should make the competition a priority. But she adds that some singers join the ranks of the world's best without winning in New York.

For example, Ms. Bynum names Lorraine Hunt, who recently sang the title role in the Boston Lyric Opera's ``Carmen.'' Ms. Hunt was not a national winner. ``If you go to the record store, there are more of [Hunt's] recordings than anyone else's,'' she says. ``She might have just had a bad day [on the day of her audition].'' On the other hand, ``there are a whole bunch [of singers] who didn't do well after winning,'' Bynum says.

Then there are rare finds such as Haijing Fu, who was discovered by a Boston University voice teacher in 1987 at an international competition. Mr. Fu knew no English, but he had an unforgettable voice; 18 months after he was first spotted, he made a victorious debut in New York.

Another trend Mr. Blier has noticed in recent years is that singers tend to be in their late 20s or early 30s. ``People are slower to develop. There's less music in the schools; lessons cost $110, and they're every week, not every day like they used to be.''

Baty said she could appreciate these changes. She learned a great deal from her mistakes in last year's contest and by talking to the women who had finished ahead of her. ``You can keep building on your technique much longer than in ballet or musical theater,'' Baty says.

Despite the large numbers competing for one or two spots in New York - there were 63 singers in the first round of the New England region - Baty says she never feels she is performing against someone. She knows, she says, ``how far I can go under the best of circumstances. So the only person I'm competing against is myself.''

Judge Blier looks for ``musical stylishness and finesse'' in a voice, he says, and ``grace under pressure. My wish is for them to learn how to deal with that pressure.''

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