Metropolitan Opera 'marathon' in Salt Lake City

Auditions • Young singers compete in hopes of making it to the big stage.
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Utahns get their chance to hear future opera stars on Saturday, when 28 singers between ages 20 and 30 take the first step on a road that could lead to New York City's famed Metropolitan Opera.

"It's kind of a marathon," said Gunter Radinger, who heads up the free, five-hour Utah District Auditions along with his wife, Carol, and Julie McBeth. "You never know — you could be listening to the next Renée Fleming or Thomas Hampson."

Three opera professionals have volunteered their services as judges for Saturday's event. The lineup always includes a prominent singer; this year, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey will join administrators from Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera. "These guys just clearing their throat is a musical experience," Radinger quipped.

Each contestant will sing an aria of his or her choice with piano accompaniment. (Utah Opera's Carol Anderson will do the honors for most of the afternoon, though some singers bring their own accompanists.) If the judges like what they hear, they will request a second aria — but this time, the judges call the tune from a list the singer has submitted. Certain arias might turn up several times on audition day; Radinger recalls one year when 15 sopranos performed "Song to the Moon" from Dvorák's "Rusalka." On the flip side, he said, it's interesting to hear different interpretations of the same music.

Unlike their counterparts on televised singing competitions such as "The X Factor," the Met audition judges don't make caustic or nonsensical comments after contestants perform. Rather, Radinger said, they give feedback in private afterward. Many singers consider this the most valuable aspect of their Met audition experience, he noted. "It's a mini private master class."

The top singers from Saturday's event (there's no set number, though three is typical) will go on to Denver for one of 14 regional finals; the next round, the semifinals, takes place on the Met stage. Approximately 10 finalists will compete in a public concert, where up to five winners will receive $15,000 awards; some will be invited to participate in the company's training program.

"American Idol" and "The Voice" have nothing on the Metropolitan Opera auditions. One could argue that the Met auditions have a stronger track record than the TV competitions in their respective genres. Along with Hampson and Fleming, winners in the auditions' nearly 60-year history include Jessye Norman, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle and Samuel Ramey; past winners at the Utah level include Craig Jessop, Stanford Olsen and Celena Shafer.

Not all Met winners become household names, and failure to advance in the auditions isn't a career-ender. But "it's a very fine way to get going quickly," Radinger said. And because many of the judges direct opera companies of their own, the auditions often result in job offers for the aspiring singers. —

Metropolitan Opera or bust

Twenty-eight young singers will compete in the Utah District Auditions of the Metropolitan Opera National Council.

Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

When • Saturday, Jan. 5, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (lunch break from 1 to 2 p.m.)

Admission • Free