|Jeffrey Black as Count Danilo in The Merry Widow 2004|
When Allerta! tracks down Jeffrey Black at Sydney’s Opera Centre to chat about his role as national adjudicator for this year’s The Australian Singing Competition (finals at the Opera House on October 25), the baritone is so friendly and unassuming that it’s difficult to picture him as a judge of other singers.
Yet Black knows exactly what he’s looking for, and he’s acutely aware of what’s at stake. A teenager-finalist himself in 1982, and winner of the competition – then known as the Marianne Mathy Scholarship – in 1983, he says the exposure brought him to national prominence and advanced his career in many other ways.
“No one had heard of me before I reached the finals. But the appearance of a teenager in such a prestigious competition generated newspaper interest and raised my profile, and the coach with whom I worked arranged for me to sing for then OA musical director Richard Bonynge,” he says. As a result of that meeting, Black was offered a contract with The Australian Opera. By the time he was 25 he’d made his Glyndebourne, Los Angeles and Covent Garden debuts. “The ball had begun to roll, and it was all due to getting my first professional contract here,” he says.
Even finalists who never won have gone on to have brilliant careers. Black says: “In that first year, when I didn’t win, another finalist who also didn’t win was Lisa Gasteen.” Yet another finalist who never won is Emma Matthews. “The aim of a competition like this is not just to win – although obviously you want to win – but the opportunities that come with being involved,” Black says.
Of course, not all winners end up having big careers. Or any careers. “It’s the luck of the draw,” Black says laconically. “You may be doing a series of brilliant performances, but if there’s no one from the Vienna Staatsoper or the Met in the house, they will go unnoticed. Or your agent may not have the ear of the top opera houses. Sometimes you hear outstanding talent and you think, this person is going to have the world at their feet, and then they go and study with the wrong person, and three years later they’re in worse shape than when they began.”
|Jeffrey Black as Count Almaviva|
in The Marriage of Figaro 2002
There are character traits that help singers to succeed though, and as an adjudicator, Black’s role is to identify them. Above all he’s looking for a distinctive, charismatic voice. “I will always remember the time Margaret Thatcher brought Michael Gorbachev backstage after a Cenerentola performance at Covent Garden. He didn’t speak much English, yet there was something about him. You were drawn to him. As adjudicator you are looking for an artist who is able to grab your attention in this way. It’s subjective of course.”
A young singer also requires a demonstrable ability to perform in a variety of musical styles, even if he/she has not yet mastered them; any singer who aims for the world’s operatic stages needs the ability to engage dramatically, and for the first time this year, competition organisers have established workshops to enable adjudicators to gauge whether artists are able to be coached and directed. “Some singers have their party pieces that they sing very well, but when you put them in an unfamiliar environment that makes demands on them, they don’t respond well,” Black says. “You’re looking for someone who can take a conductor’s or director’s ideas and integrate them into what they’re doing.”
The pitfalls for young singers? He laughs. “How long have you got?” His most basic advice is to hasten slowly. “I would not necessarily advocate the path that I took,” he says. “In opera terms I started very young, which landed me with a Wunderkind tag. That puts a great deal of pressure on you; you’re always trying to avoid being a brilliant flash in the pan.”
Careers seldom develop in exactly the way they’re planned, and the ability to change gears and move on is crucial. “My agent thought that Don Giovanni would become an international calling card for me, but it never did,” Black says. He nevertheless bursts out laughing when remembering the 1991 première of Göran Järvevelt’s Don Giovanni production for OA. “The Don G leather shorts had a huge impact on opening night – I still remember the intake of breath as I scurried down the ladder leading from Donna Anna’s bed chamber…for years, those black leather shorts were my claim to fame.”