Sing it to win it: competition experiences

Andrei Kymach, Alexandros Stavrakakis & AH Executive Director Mark Hildrew speak to Yehuda Shapiro about recent competition successes and the place for competitions in a singer’s career

June 2019 brought major competition victories for two of Askonas Holt’s younger singers: in Wales the 31-year-old Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach became BBC Cardiff Singer of the World; in St Petersburg the Greek bass Alexandros Stavrakakis, who is 30, took First Prize and Gold Medal at the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition. Music competitions – by their very existence or through divergent opinions on the contestants – can sometimes cause controversy, but there is no denying the influence that these two events, with their starry juries and strong media presence, can have on a singer’s career.

“Cardiff was like a storm, but any competition helps an artist to grow,” says Andrei Kymach, who studied in Kiev before joining the young artists’ programme at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. It was in the Russian capital that he auditioned for Askonas Holt’s Executive Director Mark Hildrew, who has managed such previous Cardiff prizewinners as Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elīna Garanča and Andrei Bondarenko. That was in Autumn 2018, around the time that Kymach applied to the BBC using a concert video recorded on a friend’s phone. “It was my dream to take part in Cardiff Singer of the World,” he continues. “When I started at the conservatory in Kiev, I saw that competitions could help to launch a professional career.” He sent videos to Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the Moniuszko Competition in Warsaw and Neue Stimmen in Germany, but was not invited to participate. Cardiff is a biennial event and he had submitted an entry for the 2017 edition too, only to be rejected. “When my second application was accepted I understood that my time had come.”

Kymach first heard about Cardiff when he started listening to the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recordings. “He was an inspiration to me. His voice introduced me to opera. Before that my experience of singing had been as a member of Orthodox and folk choirs.” Kymach’s first competition was the 2016 Marie Kraja International Singing Competition in Tirana. “I came second – that was the only time I won a prize before Cardiff.” Initially, his participation in the 55th ‘Tenor Viñas’ International Singing Contest in Barcelona in January 2018 only brought him a study bursary, but by the autumn he was singing Riccardo in I puritani at the Catalan capital’s prestigious Liceu and Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor in Tenerife, from where he travelled to Paris to audition for the BBC. In January 2019 he took the title role in Don Giovanni in Nice. By the time he reached Cardiff he had completed his time at the Bolshoi, which he considers valuable experience. “You work with big musicians and good coaches, including acting coaches. In a competition you have to understand what the piece is about, so acting is very important – it’s not just about the voice. You need to understand the drama and the message.”

At Cardiff he made it to the finals of both the main prize and the song prize. Over a period of three months he had prepared a total of six arias and 11 songs for the competition. “Most of the songs were already in my repertoire – I had sung them in the Beethoven Hall at the Bolshoi. Like the arias I chose [in the final he offered numbers from Carmen, Aleko and Lucia di Lammermoor] my songs were mostly very dramatic. An opera gives you two hours to create your character; in a song, you have just three minutes – and that helps you for opera. In Cardiff I wanted to give the best picture of my voice and stage personality, and drama is my strong point. I could maybe have sung great Verdi arias – Renato, Rigoletto, Iago – but I’m still too young for these roles. It’s important for the jury to see what you can do now, to understand what you can do with your voice.

“To be among the 20 competitors at Cardiff is a big step for an artist. It was very exciting, like a show. It didn’t make me nervous – it was lots of fun and the team was incredibly supportive and helpful. For me a competition is not about doing better than another singer, because each of the others will have something that you don’t have – and vice versa. It’s about competing with yourself. In a week, in a day, I started to be a singer at a higher level. I was very happy because I did everything I wanted. The most important thing now is to work hard and prove that I deserve this title and all the interest that people now have in me.”

Watch Andrei Kymach perform Tomsky’s Aria from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, from the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World final:

One of the career options currently open to Kymach is to join the ensemble at a leading German opera house. Alexandros Stavrakakis is now in his second season with the company of Dresden’s Semperoper, where he was previously on the young artists’ programme. The son of a Greek father and a Greek-Russian mother born in Moscow, he is an alumnus of the Athens Conservatory and the Dresden Music Academy. At Dresden his roles have included Colline in La bohème and the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, and his plans for 2019/20 include Sparafucile (Rigoletto), Don Basilio (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and Prince Gremin (Eugene Onegin). These are all important supporting assignments, but in each round of the Tchaikovsky competition Stavrakakis sampled a summit of the bass repertoire: Filippo in Verdi’s Don Carlo; Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Wagner’s Wotan (Die Walküre). He realises that the complete roles lie at least 10 years in the future for him, so his winning strategy was quite different from Andrei Kymach’s. “It certainly didn’t mean that I want to hurry things,” he says. “Mark Hildrew has always known that I’m not a singer who is going to say yes to everything! For now, it’s important for me to stay in a company where I feel I’m singing the right parts and developing in the way I wish.” Received wisdom dictates that basses take more time to mature than other singers. “I know that my voice will probably change every two months until I’m 35 and maybe reach its peak at 40. In some senses I’m still just a beginner, but if you’re honest with your ideas and what you want to communicate as an artist, a competition is less about what you choose to sing than about how you deliver it. With the Tchaikovsky, my main idea was to respect the competition and to present the best possible repertoire.” In the first two rounds the singers are accompanied by a piano and required to mix vocal genres, while the final, with orchestra, is devoted to opera. “As artists, our tool to communicate our thoughts, ideas and emotions is our voice,” says Stavrakakis. “You can’t put your voice into little boxes, lied, opera, oratorio …”

There was added drama and intensity at the competition because he was recovering from a respiratory infection that had rendered him silent for three weeks. He was forced to refrain from vocalising until a week before the competition and his stamina was down. When he reached the second round, he was not even sure he could manage the excerpt from Boris Godunov (‘I have attained supreme power’), but in the end it was probably this performance that led to his victory. “I realised that I couldn’t give up and disappoint a childhood dream of winning the Tchaikovsky. The second round turned out to be my best.”

He confesses that “the only prize I was interested in getting in the Tchaikovsky was first prize.” A year earlier he had participated in the globetrotting Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition, which on this occasion took place in Latvia. “I entered the Belvedere to give me experience of a three-round competition, of handling my nerves and of putting a winning strategy together. I didn’t want to be in the Tchaikovsky as a beginner.” He won second prize at the Belvedere. As he says, “The mission of reaching the final round was accomplished,” but he admits it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’. “I used to play basketball and I would be in a bad mood for several days if my team lost … I have a bad relationship with defeat.” Consolation took the form of the Belvedere’s audience prize. “I was happy and honoured to receive it. Everything counts and each experience can give us something. Art is ultimately about communication with an audience, not with a jury. The audience belongs to you and you belong to the audience.”

When it comes to the best way to approach a competition, Stavrakakis echoes Kymach. “Don’t pay attention to what the others are doing. Focus on your job, do what you can as well as you can. Don’t take repertoire that could be harmful for your instrument, but do sing what you love to sing, because that will show you at your best.”

Mark Hildrew had spotted the talents of both these singers before their high-profile successes in Cardiff and St Petersburg. “Some singers are good at competitions, but don’t necessarily go on to make a great career,” he says. “Others, the kind who don’t necessarily do themselves justice at auditions, need to be in costume on an opera stage. But when you approach singers and say you want to represent them, it’s about a gut feeling. I’ve known that since I started as an agent 30 years ago.”

Watch Alexandros Stavrakakis perform “La calunnia è un venticello” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, from the TCH16 Winner’s Gala

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