“I’m looking for a voice that breaks my heart.” This is no small demand for a budding singer to meet, but it’s what Dame Kiri Te Kanawa looks for when she encourages young talent and also judges it, this year as one of the distinguished jury members for the 17th Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM) that recently took place from 29th May to 7th June. Further motivation might come from the fact that her career, as well as that of Ben Heppner (another juror at the CMIM), took off after winning singing competitions.

Around the world there are many prestigious events of this kind, and naturally they are not just about high art but also business: they are marketplaces where young talents, opera houses and agencies come together. This is no different with the CMIM and its large prizes (which come to a total of 270,000 CAD or around 176,000 EUR), and yet a family-like atmosphere reigns there, which one doesn’t expect from a competition. This is partly due to the friendly organisers, who care for the well-being of the young singers in an almost motherly way. For many of the 38 contestants that stood out from over 350 applicants from 52 countries, staying with host families organized by the CMIM also contributed to a relaxed atmosphere. This way they learned about the nonchalant and charming way of life in the francophone part of Canada, and spared themselves hotel bills as well as the usual lonely fight against nervousness.

For the first time, the CMIM was split in two categories (orchestra-accompanied Aria, Song with piano accompaniment). The sixteen participants in the Song competition, who performed a programme of 35 minutes maximum in a minimum of three languages, were encouraged to bring their own pianist. This attractive offer recognises the importance of accompaniment and paid off for the Portuguese pianist João Araùjo, who was awarded a special prize of 10.000 CAD. Being judged by Warren Jones, a favourite pianist of many famous singers, certainly adds to the value of this prize. (The committee of ten was presided over by globally active music manager Zarin Mehta; other members, apart from those already mentioned, were Dame Felicity Lott, Soile Isokoski and "Monsieur Mélodie" François Le Roux.)

As João Araùjo and all the other winners were announced only after the Aria final, the CMIM kept things interesting until the very end. Various events like masterclasses or pre-concert talks with singers from the jury added to the festival-like atmosphere. Naturally, the audience is glad to hear anecdotes and appreciates good humour: Ben Heppner, for instance, admitted that he cannot concentrate on a singer and read music at the same time whereas Felicity Lott surprised audience members by saying she had always been too shy to take part in singing competitions. Her account of how she learned to bend her knee to tenors on the shorter side had everyone in stitches.

The Song competition in its entirety, as well as the first round of the Aria contest, took place in the elegant ambiance of Bourgie Hall (a concert hall with fabulous acoustics that belongs to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) whereas the two Aria semi-finals and the Aria final were held at the Maison Symphonique: opened in 2011, it is home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). The latter accompanied the young artists under the baton of Graeme Jenkins, a conductor known for his versatility and broad repertoire.

As was to be expected, however, many of the singers chose famous arias. The tenors in particular relied on warhorses like "Una furtiva lagrima" or "Je crois entendre encore", but the prospect of maybe winning an Oratorio prize made for enough variety. A few singers were courageous enough to surprise with lesser-known material and challenge the instrumentalists, but despite limited rehearsal time (which, with so many soloists wanting their turn, can hardly be more generous), everything came together, with the usual quibbles aside. Jenkins’ mostly careful choice of dynamics was particularly pleasant and made things not unnecessarily difficult for the young contestants. This was well received by the audience and particularly by the singers in the jury. As it is, insensitive conducting that leads to forcing the voice is a permanent topic in this business, and one also addressed by Kiri Te Kanawa when she gave useful tips for dealing with conductors in her masterclass.

On this occasion, she said that many young singers sound old due to incorrect vocal technique. That, of course, wasn’t the case with the singers who made it into the semi-finals of the CMIM, almost all of them prize-winners of other competitions. Some performances were indeed stunning, and even the singers admitted that they had never competed on an overall level as high as this.

Even some of the 15-minute performances by the six semi-finalists that did not qualify for the Aria final were remarkable and often fascinating. Dilyara Idrisova, a Russian coloratura soprano, possesses a bright but robust instrument that sounded particularly attractive in a Glinka aria. Baritone Kidon Choi from South Korea was a bit impaired by an emergent cold, but gave a convincing performance of "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Verdi’s Macbeth, while the Bulgarian tenor Mihail Mihaylov impressed with flexibility and velvety tone in the Italian singer’s aria from Der Rosenkavalier. Another tenor, Petr Nekoranec from the Czech Republic, is gifted with a beautiful timbre for Rossini and brought the house down with a virtuosic performance of "Sì, ritrovarla io giuro". In the same vein, South Korean bass Jongsoo Yang thrilled the audience with a zestful take on "Non più andrai" from Le nozze di Figaro. New blood like this is urgently needed on opera stages and particularly operetta stages around the world, so bowing out of the CMIM in the semi-final is by no means a loss, either for these singers or for audiences. Yang came across as very likeable when he conceded that his rival Mikhail Golovushkin deserved to be in the final for his choice of extremely difficult repertory (and indeed demonic laughs like Govolushkin’s in "Vous qui faites l’endormie" from Gounod’s Faust made for a rare experience).

Less well received by the audience was the fact that mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb dropped out. At least she and her local fans were happy to see her win the prize for the best Canadian artist in the Song section. Another surprise was the jury’s decision to send dark-voiced South Korean tenor Konstantin Lee to the final when the audience expected to see one of the other candidates from the semi-final. Lee placing third was also much-debated among the cognoscenti, though one must admit that he displayed progress going from the semi-final to the final, and a flawless rendition of arias like "Ah! Lève-toi, soleil!" is no small achievement. From the perspective of the semi-final in this tenor festival, no-one could have guessed that Lee would outdo Andrew Haji, the Canadian who excelled with hits from the French and Italian repertory and whose "Dies Bildnis…" from Die Zauberflöte reminded some of Fritz Wunderlich – a compliment not given lightly by opera lovers. Though not appearing to be in best shape in the finale, he won the Oratorio prize.

With tenors dominating this year’s CMIM, it came as no big surprise that the winner was a tenor. Along with Haji (and singing similar repertory), Mario Bahg from South Korea was a favourite; he kept his cool in the final and impressed with sweet timbre and perfect diction that made arias like "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure" special. After the gala, he remained humble, saying that having learnt so much in this competition is what matters most to him. He plans to pursue his studies in Norway, although it is to be expected that his victory at the CMIM won’t give him much peace and quiet to do so.

The Italian-Canadian mezzo soprano Emily D’Angelo won the second prize, the Radio-Canada People’s Choice Award and the Best Canadian Artist Award. When asked why she was the only woman in the finale, she said that women have to meet higher expectations. D’Angelo showed much personality and style in an ambitious programme (examples: the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos, coloratura-adorned Handel, three of Berg’s Seven Early Songs). At the tender age of 23, her career is already in the fast lane. Engagements in the near future include Cherubino at the Berlin State Opera, Rosina at the Glimmerglass Festival, and Dorabella at the Santa Fe Opera.

Last but not least, American baritone John Brancy deserves an extra mention for winning the Song competition as well as the Mélodie prize. Not placing in the Aria section might be owed to a (comprehensible) policy that one singer shouldn’t be awarded too many prizes, even though Brancy’s haunting take on Rodrigo’s death scene from Don Carlo or "Look through the port" from Billy Budd got under your skin and would have been well worth another prize. The intensity with which he sings these arias gave you a good idea of his talent for Lieder, and of how far his charisma and intelligence in putting together programmes will bring him. Having sung at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt under the baton of Lorenzo Viotti, Vienna is now at the top of his wish list – and winning at the CMIM might help achieve this goal sooner than expected. What drives him? "Music is love", is his simple but convincing answer – which brings us back to Dame Kiri and her longing for a heartbreaking voice.


Snapdragon's trip was funded by the Concours musical international de Montréal.