The Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition
Four years ago, upon visiting Romania for the first time, I received a late phonecall in my hotel. An enthusiastic voice welcomed me, saying that it was destined for us to meet:
"You are are researching the life of Hariclea Darclée! The very soprano in whose honour we organize an international voice competition in Braila."
Naturally I was most pleased to meet the friendly lady, and asked her when it was convenient.
"Well, I have some things you might like to see, so why waste time? In fact, I am on my way to your hotel now."
That was my introduction to the world of the great Romanian soprano Mariana Nicolesco. No formalities, no audiences, but simple pragmatic acting upon instinct - I could only make it to the lobby just in time! Mariana, now a dear friend, laughed when I expressed my surprise and went on to show me some Romanian publications on Darclée and the Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition which she presided. The brochures were beautifully printed and showed pictures of Darclée as well as of the young singers who strived to step in her footprints. Intrigued I accepted Mariana's invitation to visit the upcoming competition and those in the years onwards. These pages serve to show the true purpose of life and art, where great artists pass on their knowledge and secrets to younger generations, so that the art of belcanto can florish. Mariana Nicolesco is active today as a renowned vocal teacher, just like Elena Teodorini about a century ago. The same interest in the younger generations was also expressed by Darclée. Her most notable pupil was Gina Cigna, the famous Norma and Turandot, who in a Belcantosociety video remembers Darclées lessons with affection, especially regarding the interpretation of Tosca.
Since 1997 the Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition is held annually in Braila. Every second year there is the major contest and festival, whereas the other year features a conference and a masterclass (on june 30, 2004 a lecture on Mariana Nicolesco and the art of singing was presented by dr. Stephan Poen and on June 31 Miss Nicolesco gave a masterclass).
The major contest is quite a happening. Hundreds of young singers are hosted in the hotel Trajan, opposite the theatre and close to the banks of the Danube. The stairs, the elevators, the bathrooms in fact you can hear singing, scaling and gorgling everywhere. All fine young people who come with a dream, hoping to learn, to win, but most of all to sing. To choose a singers career is no lighthearted decision, especially in the 21st century where classical music seems to be marginalized under the beat of popmusic. Yet one could also uphold another view, for there certainly was never a time where so many people visited the opera as today! Perhaps opera's function in society is smaller today than in 1900, but as earths people have multiplied vastly there are more people listening to opera today than ever before. Especially if one realizes that opera is no longer a European art, but a universal passion from Milan to Seoul, New York to Tokyo and Moscow to Bejing.
The background of the festival
In 1995 the Brailan municipality was thinking about organizing a significant event that would honour the memory of Hariclea Darclée. Mariana Nicolesco was asked to investigate the possibilities. She had the idea to have a competition with young artists, and after some dispute about the pro's and cons of the old theatre versus the new one, it was decided to use the theatre where Darclée had sung herself. As this was no longer in function, some things had to be done. Mariana:
"It was in bad shape and was inhabited by some strange perfumes..."
The first Hariclea Darclée festival started with 120 participants. There was no pre-selection, but instead there were three eliminating phases. The singers were between 20 and 35 years old, and could bring their repertory of choice. There the tradition started to let the finalists perform in public at the end of the competition, while some of them are also parttaking in the complete opera performance that concludes the contests finals. Mariana Nicolesco is clear about the concept and the advantages :
"You see, these young ones are full of doubt on this extraordinary path they are heading for, and lots of them might get there, if only they would be singing the right repertoire. That is why we let them sing the things they feel most comfortable with. A good young voice is like a rough diamond. You polish it and all of a sudden you see this extraordinary light come out. And then there's the theatre life of course. In these weeks full of rehearsing for the final concert and the opera performance they learn to live in the theatre for twelve hours a day - and to enjoy it. This is very rare. I had this experience myself at La Scala. I will never forget these seven new productions, especially the Don Giovanni with Muti: from ten o' clock a.m. to two p.m. with only a few 10 minute breaks. We could go on and on, and then after midnight we all went over it again at dinner. That is what young singers find in Braila today. We give them the chance to participate in real public performances, so that they can develop."
Sarcasm about the quality of todays voices is not a thing one has to express to Mariana Nicolesco. And perhaps she is right certainly form a Romanian point of view, as today like before the most famous female voices seem to come from there. Mariana:
"There are exceptional Romanian voices today, just as there have always been. Talent is one thing though, to bring it to bear fruits is another. You have a score in which everything is written, but just how to interpret this score is something you have to learn. As for the Romanian situation: we are a Latin country, yet I meet singers who don't speak Italian! And the words, especially their meaning and subsequently their interpretation are crucial for the singing. How can you touch me if you don't know what you are saying? They need to develop the style. You see, the instrument is one thing and no singer deliberately wants to use it wrong. They don't want to have the larinx closed, they do want to sustain etc. Now the basis of singing is breathing, the diaphragm, sustaining the line. There aren't one hundred types of piano-playing - you have one instrument and basically only one technique. That's the alphabet, just like when you write. What varies is the handwriting and the different style, but all within the same basic technique. Some become great writers, others don't. Three of the laureates from the past competitions entered the academia of La Scala di Milano. Not yet La Scala, but they do sing at the stage of La Scala. That's extremely important! Some moreover sing at the Salzburg festival, some in Rome, at the Metropolitan and at the Viennese Musikverein."
Nicolae Herlea on the future of singing
Romanian baritone Nicolae Herlea, president of the international jury of the Darclée voice competition, speaks in a silvery voice that immediately betrays the singer and his modest character. In fact, listening to him speak is to hear him sing. He started performing in the turbulent days of 1948, heading for a career in what now stands as the second golden period of the twentieth century. He made his debut on the stage of the Romanian Opera on 14 April 1950 as Silvio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, setting out for a career in the former East European countries, since Romania was then Russian-occupied territory. A singer who can compare the generations of Beniamino Gigli and Helge Rosvaenge to the singers of today is like the elderly Indian valued for his wisdom, and speaking with the experiance that only comes with age. No wonder, when it comes to the future of opera, that he brings to mind the enormous differences that have taken place in the last fifty years:
"There are two answers. Opera will always live through Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, and other great composers as long as there are singers who can sing their works. As for modern opera, there is a big problem. There are talented composers today, but they fear the comparison with the great composers of the past. The art of composing operas reached such a level of perfection with Bellini and Verdi that later generations couldn't do anything else than abandon that tradition. And apparently the public still can't get enough of the established repertoire and even prefers the lesser-known or forgotten works of those masters to compositions in the modern style. Another thing is that people in the days of the great composers had a more peaceful mind, whereas today's private lives are fast and noisy. The compositions of a certain time reflect that era, and therefore we have some quite noisy, restless modern music today. The modern public, living in this fast and noisy world, seeks to escape from that and often finds rest in the music of the old bel canto school."
Still he has high hopes for the future of Romanian talent:
"Romania once had a very rich European culture; now it has to renew this great tradition. In the musical field, that is exactly what Mariana Nicolesco and I are trying to do with the Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition. Mariana never sang here before 1989, due to political circumstances that everybody knows, but when the opportunity was there she returned to sing in Romania, and that was important-just as important as continuing this Darclée Competition, creating this platform for young artists. I think this competition is an extraordinary thing. Mariana is much younger than I, and I regret that we never had the chance to sing onstage together. In order to do what she does, one needs vocation, passion, and a genuine organizational talent. At my age, I am amazed to see her so anxious, nervous, and fanatically devoted to an undertaking that aims to give young artists a chance. The importance of all this must not be underestimated, not just because of the prize a laureate can win, but also for the experience one can find here. Mariana and I once benefited from similar opportunities. She won in Milan the Voci Rossiniane International Competition, and at the outset of my career I took part in five international competitions, all of which awarded me first prize. Some singers have promising voicec, but even so it's hard to predict their future. It depends on so many things. They must meet the right people to support her, and they must be prepared to study some more years, beginning in smaller theaters. Everybody wants to start at the top these days, but if I was a manager, I would take them to Prague, Budapest, and so on, until they are ready for the challenge of a great theater."