Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movie Review: The Audition

Directed by Susan Froemke. 2009.

By chance I stumbled over The Audition, which played on PBS as the feature of a fund-raising telethon. For the part of the Metropolitan Opera's management commissioning The Audition was a rather frank attempt to draw the interest of a younger demographic, one familiar with so-called reality television, American Idol, et cetera, for hearing live opera and classical music at New York's Lincoln Center. Anecdotally, I have no problem believing what someone interviewed during the telethon alleged, that the average age of their concert-goer is 65. Their fund-raising and seat-filling goals aside, important as they are to the continuation of the opera, this is a wonderful movie.

The Audition is the story of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the competition's 22 semifinalists, 11 finalists, and 5 winners. We spend most of the film (which is probably about 110 minutes) with the 11 semifinalists, learning what brought them there and seeing where they are in perfecting the program they hope will impress the judges and launch their careers. What becomes apparent rather quickly is the group's diversity. This variety of ranges, timbres, personas, and programs greatly and invariably shifts the nature of the competition, which is not about whose "Largo al factotum" is snappier, but about who has to hit his high C's, who needs to work on her breathing, and who has to realize that he is good enough to compete. There is no villain or even meanie, and while young and talented Michael Fabiano is more aloof and has a less rosy picture of the competition than the others seem to, we still root for him. There is no gossip, cheating, or fighting to wallow in, only to see who will perfect his work and wonder who, even if he does, might not be what the judges are looking for.

While many viewers will probably cheer for one singer above all, we empathize with all of them for the difficulty of their task, the years they spent preparing, the stress of having your potential failure broadcast and preserved for posterity, the risk of time and money, and of course their emotional investment. In their practice sessions conductor Marco Armiliato seems to do as much for them by calming them down as he does by helping them fine-tune their performances.  Their formal audition before the judges and a packed Metropolitan Opera house is both tense and spectacular, filled with onstage successes and backstage trepidation. This last act is intercut with the scenes of the singers returning to the waiting room after their audition, where they are all greeted with kindness and encouragement by their fellow singers and we see they are not a group of temperamental artistes and prima donnas, but one of talented and passionate people simply trying to do what they love the best they can.
click to enlarge

Postscript. (spoilers.)

I was particularly saddened to see in the coda during the credits that Ryan Smith, (above, left) succumbed to cancer not long after his success in the Met competition. Ryan's personal story, of being forced to abandon his singing career due to financial issues early in life and his recommitment years later, was quite affecting. Seeing his confidence rise, seeing him realize that he was good enough to compete, and finally seeing him triumph in his audition was the heart of this movie and what made it so very compelling and significant. I'm quite sure I'm not alone in thinking that.

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