I'm just back from Budapest, home of the Armel Opera Festival. The festival proper, which showcases productions brought to Budapest by companies from across Europe, doesn't get underway until the end of this month, but as a prelude to that, the Budapest Music Centre plays host to the Armel Opera Competition. In several respects the Armel Opera Competition is an anomaly among international opera competitions. The participants are competing not for cash prizes, but for the (arguably more valuable) opportunity to take a specific role in one of the productions which will be mounted by the festival's partner companies and then brought to Budapest in 2016. Accordingly, although the competition's process includes the time-honoured format of singers lining up in concert frocks to give public performances of their “warhorse” audition arias, under the scrutiny of an unnervingly numerous and eminent jury, it culminates in a series of workshops, in which representatives from the various opera companies present are able to see and hear the singers trying on excerpts from the selected role for size. This year there was an accent on contemporary operas, which only added to the sense of challenge and unpredictability. After a preliminary audition earlier in the year, I had been selected to try out for the baritone role in the stage première of Senza Sangue by Peter Eötvös, a brand new opera which has only just been given its first concert performances by the New York Philharmonic, who commissioned it. Eötvös, a former student of Stockhausen and one of the most prominent of living composers, is a towering figure in Hungarian (not to mention European) music, and it was at once thrilling and more than a little intimidating to work on his very complex score under the watchful eye and ears of the man himself, who will conduct the performances in Avignon and Budapest next year. Alas, the competition result didn't go my way, but it was still a memorable day as well as an instructive one. In many respects the idiosyncratic competition format resembles some of the processes by which opera companies make casting decisions – in effect, it's a public casting audition – and it was salutary to be able to see and experience this at closer quarters than is usually possible. And by way of consolation, I was delighted that, in the course of my preparations, I found myself discovering the work of Alessandro Baricco, the Italian writer whose pithy, haunting novella furnished Eötvös and his librettist with their inspiration.
You can read more about Senza Sangue on the New York Times website.