Given the current state of play, awarding this year’s German-Australian Opera Grant was always going to be a challenge. Determined to forge ahead, Artistic Director David Kram swung into action and on August 14 and 15, GAOG became the first event of its type to audition and select an opera singer from Australia for a full-time job in Germany entirely via Zoom.

After two days of auditions, Victorian baritone Darcy Carroll emerged as the singer who will be given the opportunity to enjoy a one-year contract to work at the State Theatre of Hessen in Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt). The other successful candidates were South Australian soprano Karina Bailey who received the MTO Development Grant including a $3500 cash prize, while soprano Georgia Melville and baritone Andrew Williams, both from NSW, each earned a cash prize of $1500.

Limelight caught up with David Kram to hear how GAOG managed to turn adversity into triumph and learn a little more about how opera companies might need to adapt in the months ahead if they want to run auditions online.

GAOG Artistic Director David Kram

When did it begin to look as if this year’s audition wouldn’t be able to take place in a live venue, and did you consider cancelling outright?
We never considered cancelling outright though we did discuss postponing until restrictions eased. After Stage Four came into place, we decided to fulfil our original commitment to the singers and our supporter since so much planning and implementation had already taken place and our partner, the State Theatre of Hesse, Wiesbaden (Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden), plans its repertoire up to two years in advance.

How did you decide on Zoom auditions, and did you consider other options?
I am familiar with Microsoft Teams, Webex, Skype. However, Zoom is currently the norm across multiple organisations and is very user-friendly. It also features the application ‘original sound’, which suits music much better than the default audio setting.

What was the application process for contestants, what was the audition process, and what were the parameters you set at each stage?
The audition process followed the same rules which have been tried and true for 18 years. 1) Singers apply. 2) Preselection by the panel in June. 3) Semi-finals with 12 singers. 4) Finals with four singers.  The only thing we had to cancel was our normal group acting workshop. The auditions are, we claim, the most holistic in Australia, perhaps in the world, as decisions are made not only on how well one sings but on all the factors which go to making a professional soloist contract in a European opera house.

How did you decide between having accompanists in the room and performing to backing tracks?
The June preselection chose singers from NSW, QLD, SA and VIC. At that stage Victoria was still in Stage Three. So, the first protocol was that singers could choose their own accompanists, performing live remotely via Zoom. When Phase Four came into effect in Victoria, all singers had to perform with backing tracks, for the purposes of a level playing field. The singers, to their credit, accepted this.  The accompanists accomplished amazing results.

What do you perceive as the main limitations involved in this format?
It’s common knowledge that rock singers often perform with backing tracks. As do opera singers when performing a ‘gig’ such as a café with the background of clanking cutlery and a nice fee. There are, as we know, limitations at a more serious level. As it was, I spent a lot of time contacting each singer personally and going through in detail their five arias and art song. I told them they were not obliged to record backing tracks for recitatives and with regards to rubato and fermatas I made sure they and their accompanists were confident that they could achieve the best outcome possible. Even so, all agreed that it was more difficult for singers to achieve certain nuances and subtlety.

Baritone Darcy Carroll

It must be said that the panel were greatly impressed with how the auditionees surmounted these obstacles, over and above our expectations. It does credit for the talent and positive ‘can-do’ attitude of our Ozzie singers and cements the reason why Ozzies are so well regarded overseas as outstanding colleagues.

Were you at all concerned that size of voice and projection would be hard to evaluate?
That is what distinguishes us from an Eisteddfod! A singer’s curriculum vitae is an important factor in our decision.

Let me digress. I was a guest conductor in Wiesbaden during the early ‘90s. I conducted Die Meistersinger, Káťa Kabanová, a world premiere for the May Festival and other operas, including La Bohème. I remember the Polish soprano who sang Mimì. She didn’t have a big voice, but my! – it had incredible focus and easily pierced through the curtain of orchestral sound. Others, who tried to make their voices ‘bigger’, were not so successful. So – a secure technique is the foundation of opera singing.

What qualities did the judges find in Darcy Carroll that led to his being awarded this year’s GAOG?
All finalists and many semi-finalists had these attributes: a good instrument, a sound technique, a mature approach, artistry, intelligence, willingness to learn and develop, creativity. We don’t allocate ‘marks’, but the combined experience and instincts of the panel considered Darcy the most apt person to fill the role. Again, this is not a singing competition, this is a job assessment: application letter, CV, photo, audition videos, audition, interview. A mix.

Given that currently returning to Australia is a major issue, do you anticipate problems with Darcy actually taking up his placement next year?
Who can tell? We have to take positive action based on circumstances which arise. Take Fleuranne Brockway (our awardee for 2019-20). Her season was curtailed in April, so she was not able to take part in a new production of Elektra. She still got paid. We mentored her. She elected to stay in her Wiesbaden apartment. She has good guest work for Wiesbaden in the coming season because they love her so much. Michelle Ryan (our awardee for 2020-21) was due to leave in May to start her pre-season coaching, acclimatisation and German course. She actually left on August 5. We mentored her. Ozzie singers are resilient. They take each situation as it comes and they deal with it.

What do you personally see happening with live opera performances in Australia next year?
That’s a key question, which merits in-depth discussion and much more coverage than it gets, while tourism and sport get so much more of the media space. I feel it’s important that the arts in Australia play a key role in both those areas, especially if you credit sport and the performing arts with the ability to bring people together and lift them out of their daily ‘survival’ mode. Quite frankly, I don’t know. My guess is that companies will be putting more of their assets into developing their on-line business.

Question – why doesn’t the ABC, for example, put more assets into recording performances? Take the iconic soprano Marilyn Richardson who I had the privilege of conducting in Sydney in the 1980s. Before that time, she used to perform on TV for the ABC.

Finally, do you think the pandemic might force you back online for next year’s auditions?
Let us pray not! But we’re Ozzies, aren’t we? The roof may fall in – we assess, we plan, we implement, we don’t whinge. Our Ozzie singers are prized in Wiesbaden. At GAOG we have loyal, long-standing supporters. Let’s keep the arts alive. Better live, but this is the digital age. I’m sure that scribes whinged when the printing press came along, horse people whinged when the auto industry arrived. You have to adapt.

You know what impresses me most – and I’ve been a professional musician for 51 years. Despite the high arts being lumped into entertainment and lifestyle, despite opera being seen as a European import, despite opera being seen as an expensive anachronism, still a kernel of young people who realise that it is a form of expression which endures, because there is no other art form which synthesises all the art-forms to such a degree.

On a broader front, there is a kernel of young people for whom more trivial forms of so-called artistic expression simply won’t do. It’s all about higher levels of skill, higher levels of concentrated focus, higher levels of deep thinking, higher levels of awakening spiritual consciousness. This transcends cultural and generational boundaries, and so it should remain, otherwise our civilisation will degenerate into, as Herman Hesse put it in his novel The Glass Bead Game, “The Age of the Feuilleton”.