The last time Sydney Eisteddfod had to be cancelled was during World War II. But this year, like other performing arts events around the world, the not-for-profit competitive performing arts festival, founded in 1933, will not be able to go ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, it is presenting an online competition for singers, musicians, dancers and actors around the world. The Crowd Favourite Performances Competition will offer four prizes of $1000 chosen by an audience vote, and four awards of $500 selected by a jury of industry professionals. Individual submissions as well as duo and group entries are welcomed, as long as COVID-19 restrictions are complied with during recording sessions.

Speaking to Limelight, Sydney Eisteddfod CEO Piroozi Desai-Keane says: “With so many people in isolation and feeling lonely, and depression being a major issue in our community these days, our Board and Staff felt that we needed to keep in touch with our talented young performing artists and give them the opportunity to keep honing their skills and feel part of the bigger picture, albeit in a virtual world. This offer from Sydney Eisteddfod of an online competition, Crowd Favourite Performances, is our way to keep these artists engaged with a project and a purpose to work towards, thus the incentive to keep sharpening their skills.”

Image courtesy of Sydney Eisteddfod

As to involving a public vote as well as jury awards, Desai-Keane says: “I strongly believe that parents, teachers, extended family and friends are an integral part of the nurturing of our young artists and thus involving them also as well as the general public in this project means that they too get involved through this voting process. [It’s] similar to the involvement and interest we would have experienced if we had presented these competitions before a live audience, thus empowering and including everyone in this process.”

This is the first time that Sydney Eisteddfod has opened up a competition to people around the world. “Everyone is in the same boat with COVID-19 and by being all inclusive we feel that we are reaching out to the ‘Bigger Performing Arts Family’. This also gives our local entrants the chance to see and view what others are doing in the big wide world,” says Desai-Keane.

Online entry to the competition is open between September 1 to 21, and is free. Videos by 24 applicants will be posted on the Sydney Eisteddfod website on October 23. Each week the eight finalists with the least number of votes will be removed to reveal the 16 semi-finalists and then the eight finalists. The winners of the four Audience Awards and four Jury Awards will be announced on October 27.

Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, who is one of Sydney Eisteddfod’s alumni, describes the new competition as “a wonderful initiative. With everyone feeling a bit disheartened, it offers a wonderful incentive for young performers to polish their repertoire and present it to the public. I always love a deadline and find it very hard to motivate myself to learn repertoire with no goal in sight. This competition provides that goal, and is a lovely way to showcase up and coming talent to a large audience,” says Dark.

She acknowledges that there are multiple challenges to performing online. “The obvious one would be potentially not being in the same room as your accompanist, or performing to a recording, which I always find difficult because it eliminates spontaneity of performance. That said, it’s also great training for working with a conductor who has very specific demands, where you can’t always indulge your instincts! It’s also tough to give the kind of emotional performance you would with a live audience. There’s something electric about that connection with other human that makes live theatre so very special, so the challenge will be to try to channel true and honest emotions, because the camera picks up everything!”

“I’d encourage the singers to perform as if they were on stage, and to try to forget the camera is there. To use their full voices and full range of expression. I can’t wait to see what these clever young singers come up with – it will be an absolute treat to watch them all perform!” says Dark.

Pianist Simon Tedeschi, who is an ambassador for Sydney Eisteddfod, tells Limelight: “As a pianist, I am certainly acquainted with solitude and would go so far as to say the ability to be by oneself is essential for a pianist. However, a concert pianist must also be a chimera, must leave their studio and be able to communicate with thousands of people at once. During times like these, both of these states are threatened. We feel more alone than ever and we are also able to commune with our audiences or society at large.”

“Institutions that are fundamental to developing both of these mercurial qualities, such as Sydney Eisteddfod, are now unable to function. But artists have always had to ‘dig deep,’ whether it’s during wartime (Shostakovich, Messiaen, Mandelstam, Paul Celan), sickness (DeQuincey, Schubert, Mozart) or simply the travails of daily life (every artist, ever!) Thus, I am convinced that artists will continue to thrive no matter what is forced upon them and will, in fact, continue to be at the vanguard of change. And the artist will, as he or she always has, find opportunities amongst whatever wreckage they see,” says Tedeschi.

“Whether it’s the opportunities given by online contests such as Sydney Eisteddfod’s Crowd Favourite Performances, or anything else, artists will let the world guide them and art will change and adapt in the process. Musicians may not have an audience as such at the moment, but the world is watching and waiting for artists to lead the charge. Even when you are performing for an empty hall, with nothing but a camera looking at you, never forget that some of the best stories can be told to a mirror, that you can be your own audience, that as humans we’re connected by an intangible bond. Art makes us stronger, not weaker.”

Entries to Sydney Eidsteddfod’s Crowd Favourite Performances Competition open on September 1

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