Three lyric sopranos, a dramatic mezzo and a tenor were the finalists in this year’s Voice of Black Opera competition, organized by the Black British Classical Foundation and open to Commonwealth singers. Great Britain, Canada, South Africa and Jamaica were represented in the final, where each of the contestants sang a group of arias including a duet with one of three professional singers, with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, as well as a contemporary song with piano accompaniment by a black or South Asian composer.
The evening’s program booklet, however, did not explain any of the conditions of the contest – the age restrictions on entrants or what had to be included in their choice of repertoire – although it did take care to list who was responsible for their hair and make-up. Nor did it provide the ages of the finalists, which certainly matters when judging young singers, especially when here their range of experience seemed to vary wildly, from some who had just graduated from music school, to those who had already hired solo roles with companies across Europe.
Indeed the choice of operatic material was disappointingly narrow. Mozart was the first composer represented – there was no Baroque opera – while from the 20th century there were only a couple of pieces by Richard Strauss and an aria from Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Given that one of the two awards, the Samuel Coleridge Taylor Award, included the chance to work with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group at a premiere, the lack of more modern repertoire was surprising.
But ultimately all that matters with music contests is whether the winners are the plausible ones, and here that seemed to be the case. There were good individual performances elsewhere, especially by Canadian mezzo-soprano Chantelle Grant, but the judges awarded the Samuel Coleridge Taylor prize to South African tenor Thando Mjandana, who had played some trendy Mozart, and showed off his coloratura agility. in a number of Donizetti’s piece La Fille du Régiment. And the top prize, the Sir Willard White Trophy, which includes WNO coaching and an appearance with his orchestra, went to British Jamaican soprano Rachel Duckett.
In addition to displaying impressive technique in Gilda’s Aria Caro Nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto and Zerbinetta’s So War es mit Pagliazzo from Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Duckett was the only one of the finalists to really suggest that she was giving a dramatic, and that what was singing was part of a play. You have already worked with Opera Nice and that experience proved it.