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Spotlight June 2023

Singing to Win

An insider offers his perspective on what it is like to sing in a vocal competition.

By Edward Nelson

Edward Nelson performing in the Glyndebourne Cup competition, 2020
Edward Nelson performing in the Glyndebourne Cup competition, 2020

© Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd/ArenaPAL

“AND THE WINNER IS….” Four words that hang in the air, arresting attention and conjuring hope, fear and everything in between. Resplendent mental images of victorious award-show moments abound. The phrase is so ubiquitous in modern culture that one forgets its true weight, thanks in part to an endless stream of reality TV contests whose victors often fade into obscurity as quickly as they appeared. Yet for an opera singer, these four words can herald a life-changing moment, validating years of arduous work and igniting a launch into new artistic and professional strata.

For young singers, voice competitions serve a few essential functions, including the opportunity for exposure to industry professionals and the chance to win substantial prize money, which helps offset the tremendous costs associated with turning dreams of an opera career into reality. In the current landscape, these competitions have become nearly requisite in bridging the gap between the academic and professional realms, providing an artistic platform from which one can gain the advocacy of opera insiders, while offering singers a clear glimpse into the intensely competitive field of classical music.

Among the hundreds that take place throughout the world every year, a small handful of elite competitions can truly change the course of an artist’s career. Beyond the laurels of prize money and regional exposure, these high-stakes arenas extend a global reach. Performances are televised, broadcast worldwide and followed by voracious opera fans as closely as sports fans follow the Olympics. The top contests boast juries of industry power-brokers with the means to anoint the newest members of the operatic in-crowd. A successful performance in one of these venues can be a professional turning point; a high-profile misstep risks stalling the momentum of a nascent career.

I was nearly thirty-one when I sent in my application for the 2020 Glyndebourne Cup, a week-long event hosted on the musically hallowed grounds of the historic English summer festival. The final round was to be accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and broadcast in the sensational made-for-TV style of Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor. As I was nearing most competition age limits, a close friend urged me to throw my hat into the ring.

Until that point, I had developed a certain craftiness for avoiding competitions. Two blissful but wildly busy years in San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship and a few lucky breaks in my early freelance career had afforded me the footholds I needed to make a living and set out on my artistic path. It was easy enough to think I was past needing the competition gauntlet to aid in career-building, and easier still to avoid the internal artistic reckoning that comes with entering the arena.

Nelson after his victory in the Glyndebourne Cup competition, 2020
Nelson after his victory in the Glyndebourne Cup competition, 2020

© Richard Hubert Smith/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd/ArenaPAL

My early competition experiences had borne accidental successes, but they were largely devoid of strategy. In my first outing, I managed to advance to the semifinal of the Metropolitan Opera Competition, finding myself onstage in the world’s largest opera house at the age of twenty-three, overwhelmed and ungrounded. I won prizes in smaller contests but found it difficult to reach the final rounds of the Big Ones, and I eventually decided that my artistic identity was better fortified by concentrated investment in my performance work, rather than the emotional rollercoaster of being appraised and ranked.

Four years out of the game, I prepared for Glyndebourne. With an eliminatory stage in four locations, comprising more than 200 worthy competitors, the odds were steep. Wanting to avoid all external pressure, I made no public mention of my participation and plotted in private. Every decision, from repertoire to dramatic presentation to attire, was made in quiet, internal deliberation. I kept my blinders on, focused solely on authentically presenting the artist I’d become. It wasn’t until the final round, when my last notes rang out and the audience erupted in deafening cheers, that I dared to hope for a win. Then, with the packed theater in silent anticipation, I heard those fateful words—“And the winner is Edward Nelson.”

In those formative years away from the competition circuit, time spent tackling the challenges of life as a vagabond artist, developing a deeper relationship with my craft and experiencing ever-new, ever-foreign environments in which to create, I found the crucial piece that had been missing from my early competition strategy—a sense of self. Out in the wild, free of academia, young-artist programs and their sea of well-meaning voices offering counsel and opinion, I learned to trust my own.

In the early years of a career, the towering system of the opera industry can seem like an impenetrable fortress. Competitions, for all their risk and reward, are but one useful way to gain access. Since that unforgettable night at Glyndebourne, I’ve had more wins and more losses, but with an integral lesson learned, I never lost myself.

As much as I’d love to proclaim otherwise, being oneself doesn’t always result in the top prize. Glorious singing is a must, and beyond that, much rests on the intangible magic of each artist, each person. The goal of being truly seen must rise above all others. For those who enter the arena, the only surefire path to victory is paved with unshakeable self-belief.

Edward Nelson is an American baritone based in San Francisco.