What Makes Concurso San Miguel Unique?

An Open Letter by John Bills, Artistic Director, Opera San Miguel

At the party following last year’s Concurso San Miguel XI, I was asked by one of our Angels how our jury goes about making its very difficult decisions. I answered, “Knowledge and Experience,” referring to the nearly 200 years of professional opera experience represented by last year’s jury. But afterwards it got me thinking about what it is that sets Concurso San Miguel apart from any other contest I know, and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

Most singing contests invite their judges to arrive the day before the finals. They hear the singers one time, and then go into a room and make their decisions. As a former singer myself, with more than 5000 performances at the Metropolitan Opera under my belt, I long ago came to believe that this traditional approach is not always predictive of future success. It seemed to me that to base an investment of thousands of dollars on a moment-in-time impression is not to consider the artist as a whole. And to be clear, that’s what we are doing—we are investing in these young singers’ futures, and I feel a strong fiduciary responsibility to our Angels and donors to invest their money wisely.

Therefore in our contest we take a “whole artist” approach to choosing our winners. We begin by inviting judges who have vast experience in professional opera: teaching and coaching professional singers, judging contests, casting roles and leading entire opera companies, managing and representing professional singers. I specifically choose judges who all understand the state of opera TODAY, the needs and requirements of opera companies in their hiring, and who recognize the necessary qualities in a singer to be successful. Each of our judges participates in and closely watches the week’s coachings and rehearsals so that on Concurso night their decisions can be informed by their week-long observations.

We are investing in potential, and potential is measured in many ways. We look for singers who best display a combination of talent, technique, style, training, intelligence, musicianship, preparedness, interpretive skills, language skills, plus strength of character, and a willingness to accept constructive criticism—all qualities which are vitally important to future success, but many of which are impossible to assess in a single hearing. To be sure, how the singers perform under the pressure of a full-house, with thousands of dollars in prize money at stake, is crucial in our decisions, but other factors are fundamental as well.

How is this approach working out, you might ask. Well, I can say, somewhat immodestly, pretty darn well! Actually, verging on the astounding. Many of our winners are now studying in the most prestigious opera training programs in the world, and many others performing with major opera companies in the US, Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Bahrain, Spain, Netherlands and Russia, at a rate unheard of for Mexican singers just ten years ago.

I was very gratified by a note I received from the newest member of our Concurso jury, Cori Ellison, who was encountering this approach to judging for the first time. Cori is a frequent judge for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she is the foremost opera dramaturg in the US, has been company dramaturg at the New York City Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival, and holds that position now at the Santa Fé Opera; she is a vocal arts faculty member of the Juilliard School in New York City and can often be heard on the Met’s broadcast intermission features. This is what she wrote to me after spending a week with our finalists and observing our approach: “What you’ve done here is astonishing, and I believe you’re helping to ensure the future of opera, not only here but all over the world, since I honestly believe that Latin singers are the ones who will, more than anyone else, keep this flame (of opera) alive as we know it. Muchas gracias for a life-changing week!”

You can become a part of this life-changing work by becoming an Angel of Opera San Miguel. Click here for more information.