Sophie Joyce Paterson
© PR | Private

Neue Stimmen (New Voices), a singing competition funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation, looks back on thirty years of success. Every two years, a high-profile jury made up of directors of opera houses and festivals chooses the best young singers and names like René Pape, Marina Rebeka and Franco Fagioli are representative of the many international careers that Neue Stimmen has been involved with over the years. Unique for a competition of this size is its search for talent. For this year’s final round, which will see 45 participants compete from 19th to 27th October in Gütersloh (Germany), 1427 applications had to be sifted through, sparing no expense. A preliminary round was held in 25 cities around the world, and the jury members attended in person to seek out emerging talents. Unlike most singing competitions, Neue Stimmen strongly believes that no DVD can replace the face-to-face experience of an audition.

Sophie Joyce Paterson shares this point of view. It is her first time on the jury of Neue Stimmen, but she can look back on years of jury experience, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She started her career at IMG Artists, where she worked with some of the highest profile singers in the world today. Unsurprisingly, she developed a passion for voices (“Once you've got the opera bug, you've got it.”) and went on to work ten years for English National Opera in various positions, including Head of Casting. She has been the Director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program since 2018.

The Vienna State Opera, whose general manager Dominique Meyer leads the jury of Neue Stimmen, is her tenth and last stop on her tour through North America and Europe, and her experiences have been thrilling: “Following the singers that you get to hear is an incredible experience. It’s fascinating! Discovering them is one of the most important things in the business. It’s easy to say, but that has to happen, otherwise we won’t hear new voices!” At the same time, she stresses the importance of practical support for young artists. “One of the fantastic things about Neue Stimmen is that the panel is made up of people who can give these singers jobs.” Indeed, many past winners have contracts with the Vienna State Opera or other big houses. But the support from Neue Stimmen doesn't end there: not only their laureates profit from long-education opportunities and concert invitations; this extends to other talents to watch as well, and this shortlist has hundred names on it. And let’s not forget the international contacts that Neue Stimmen has built in the thirty years of its existence. It’s a career network in the best sense of the word.

But first, the young singers have to get their names on this shortlist. “When I’m listening to a singer, there’s a certain order that I follow. First of all, the general sound of the voice – how do I find it? And then there is the technique. Do I think that the singer can deliver consistently? What does the singer do stylistically? The personality of an artist is also very important. These are actually the four categories we judge on the panel of Neue Stimmen using a points system, so the evaluation process is transparent. The young singers get this feedback so they know where they stand.” However, Joyce Paterson admits that there are personal preferences as well. “I’m looking for what I call vocal charisma, a glamorous sound. Does the singer have something to say? And does the voice move me?” Even close opera fans can have different opinions on singers, and I imagine it’s the same for the jury. “I’m actually amazed at how similar we often are in our assessment of the singers, but of course we have discussions. If I like a singer better than my colleagues or vice versa, we often work out the differences by referring to a competitor we agreed on.”

A workshop during the latest Neue Stimmen edition in 2017
© Besim Mazhiqi | Bertelsmann Stiftung

There have never been so many well-trained singers worldwide than today. In theory, the competition between them shouldn't only increase the pressure on singers, but the overall quality level as well. Yet there are opera fans who are nostalgic about the “good old days“ and do not seem to overly appreciate the singers we have now. Naturally, Joyce Paterson doesn't agree: “I’m one of those who think that there are many fantastic singers out there; I don’t think we’re having a crisis of good singers!” she laughs before switching to a more serious tone again. “These days, there are many elements to being a star opera singer, it’s a whole package! You have to have this incredible voice, the command of languages… you have to be smart in dealing with the public and social media, and let’s not forget that we live in the HD cinema world. You have to have this personality as a performer, but also off-stage – people should get excited by the person as well. I know that we’re asking a lot, there can’t be hundreds of these people!"

Of course, before starring in an HD broadcast, singers will usually work in smaller houses and do all kinds of odd opera jobs, deal with dubious productions and so forth. “When we look at competitors, there comes the point where we ask ourselves, ‘How flexible is that person?’ Flexibility, being able to adapt to different styles is really important in the modern industry. But I also ask myself, ’What makes him or her memorable?’ And in the end it all comes down to the voice, the ability to express emotions through the voice.“

Developing such a voice can be a long-term project, especially for big Wagner, Strauss or Verdi voices. Singers have to make a living before they are ready for these dramatic parts. “At Neue Stimmen, there is repertoire that singers with dramatic voices can choose to sing, but they don‘t necessarily have to sing this dramatic repertoire to show the potential they have at that point. Just because they might be the kind of singer who can sing big dramatic roles at 40, in their prime, doesn’t mean they have nothing to show at 25 or 28. So I think we would still be able to offer the opportunity for someone to hear the potential, and even win in the competition. They don’t need to get ahead of themselves. What you can do now is important.“

That's valuable advice from someone who really knows her business, and she willingly shares more inside knowledge. “Technical security and repertoire choice are crucial because you have to be confident in what you’re doing. I always encourage young talents to really get to know themselves and be honest with themselves. They should also seek out people they can completely trust, ask for (and accept) honest advice (like ‘I don’t think you’re ready for that role!’). Because once you go down that road where you start compromising your vocal abilities, it’s hard to turn around. The best singers today never finish learning and are always working on their craft! The schedule is also an important element; singers and managers should be partners. Again, security is important; some singers find it hard to say no because they are afraid it might hurt their career.” She pauses, then smiles, "Pavarotti once said that he made his career by saying no!” Given the global competition in the business, saying no is probably easier said than done, but advice like this shows how important a long-term collaboration is for Neue Stimmen – talents receive gentle fostering and encouragement.

On stage at the latest Neue Stimmen competition in 2017
© Besim Mazhiqi | Bertelsmann Stiftung

The candidates come from all parts of the world, but even in the time of globalisation, there are still some cultural differences. “I’ve heard auditions for Neue Stimmen in three North American and seven European cities, and I’ve noticed that the American vocal coaches really train their students in auditioning. I’m generalising a bit here, but the American singers come very well prepared, they’ve thought it all through, from what they’re wearing to the folders they bring to the auditions, and that is also part of the performance, you come to expect that. My jury colleagues took over the auditions in Asia, but it’s no secret that there are many fantastic singers from South Korea – vocal teaching must be going pretty well there!”

Joyce Paterson always keeps a positive attitude, but does her job still excite her day after day? Does she ever get tired of hearing standard repertoire over and over again, like the 50th "Lunge da lei" of the season? The answer is a surprised and decided “No!” (Apparently, that thought has never crossed her mind before.) “If someone sings it well, it’s amazing, it gives you so much energy. Every time someone says, ‘I’ve brought this aria’, you think, ‘Oh, this could be the one!’. But things seem to be going in fashion. One year you hear a particular aria very often, and then the next year it is nowhere to be found.” That makes me curious to hear about the trends she's seen in the Neue Stimmen preliminary rounds – were there any surprises? “According to my jury colleagues, there were a lot of mezzo-sopranos in the last competition, but this year we’ve seen a lot of fantastic sopranos. There are always many sopranos, but not necessarily fantastic ones.” That’s good news, and perhaps we’ll see a new prima donna soon. Sophie Joyce Paterson definitely makes us look forward to hearing Neue Stimmen.

Click here for more information about Neue Stimmen.

This interview is sponsored by Neue Stimmen.