Saturday, 31 August 2019

The success of a competition is nothing more than the success and career development of the competitors: I chat to Lars Flæten, director of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 -  Astrid Nordstad, Natalia Tanasiiciuc, Sergey Kaydalov, Meigui Zhang, Stefan Astakhov, Adam Kutny and Theodore Browne (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
The Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo, Norway celebrated its 30th anniversary this year [see my review of the final at Oslo Opera House], and during my visit to Oslo I was able to sit down with Lars Flæten, the current director of the festival, to chat about its history and its place in the current busy climate of international competitions. 


inal of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 First prize winner, Sergey Kaydalov (Russia) & H.M. Queen Sonja on Norway (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
First prize winner, Sergey Kaydalov (Russia) & H.M. Queen Sonja of Norway
(Photo Adrian Nielsen)
I was attending the competition as part of a group of journalists from six different countries, Belgium, USA, Spain, Germany, France and the UK, and Lars emphasised that the international recognition of a music competition is important. For him, the success of a competition is nothing more than the success and career development of the competitors. So a competition needs to attract the best singers, and to deliver prize-winners that are in demand. He feels that a competition that fails to deliver this is not relevant.

A competition is dependent on the participants being happy with the competition, yet whilst it has an important role to play Lars certainly does not think that a competition should be everything for a singer's career, in fact the competition is more dependent on the singers than they are on the competition. Lars also feels that the competition has to give a first prize, rather than failing to award one because of the low standard of the competitors (as happens in some international competitions). He comments that if you feel that the standard of the performers reflects badly on the competition then the competition is doing a bad job at attracting performers. And the competition tries to honour the Norwegian tradition of fairness, and ensure that everyone has a chance.

As a competition focused on young opera singers, Lars sees that the competition needs to investigate where opera is going and this year's programme included panel discussions about various aspects of the opera business, with the aim also of making a difference to all the participants of the competition. One of the things offered to finalists (though not part of the judging process) is an assessment of their stage presence, this is part of the competition's desire to help prepare young singers for the reality of operatic life. Also, for the first time this year, the final included duets.

Traditionally Norwegian performers had to go abroad to compete, there were no national competitions. The idea originally came from Mariss Jansons, then music director of the Oslo Philharmonic. As a Latvian trained in the Russian tradition, Jansons saw the lack of a competition in Norway. The original idea was for it to be called the Edvard Grieg competition, but it was then felt that such a competition would have to be based in Bergen. So it was named for HM Queen Sonja, then Crown Princess Sonja, who remains an active patron of the festival.

The original festival was in fact a piano competition, but after a short hiatus it re-formed as a vocal competition for the centenary celebrations of the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. It is now nationally and internationally recognised, taking place every two years. The competition's website includes a listing of all the previous prize winners.

The competition is a collaboration between major music institutions in Norway, including Det Norske Opera & Ballett. But though these institutions support the competition, there is no explicit link so that the competition is unable to offer guaranteed roles with companies in Norway. A recent development is a link with the young artists programmes at major opera houses, who are able to present candidates bypassing the preliminary selection rounds. At the final of the six finalists, three had been in young artist programmes.

The competition's slogan is 'Come as you are' and the singers are able to bring their own repertoire, and in fact the selection of suitable pieces to present themselves in the best way is almost part of the process. This helps to show how much a singer understands their own strengths. So, whilst the performing of contemporary music is encouraged, it is not mandatory and at this year's final the most recent piece was from Britten's Billy Budd.

The competition is well-supported by the locals, but Lars admits that the events are not packed with audience in the way that the Queen Elisabeth Competiton is, but he emphasises how young Norway is in terms of classical music. The first full time opera company was not created until the 1950s, and then it was performing in an old theatre and it would take another 50 to 60 years to get the modern opera house. But Norway is a nation of small towns and villages, the distance from Oslo to the very Northernmost tip is the same as the distance from Oslo to Milan, and Oslo itself has only 600,000 inhabitants.

The prosperity which came from Oil in the 1970s was relatively new, prior to that Norway had been a land of farmers and fishermen with a tradition of poverty. In the late 19th century it was one of the poorest nations in Europe and in the 1880s a lot of the population migrated to the USA. So the country has no long tradition of music and the fine arts, which can be seen as a benefit as this means that there is a lack of the traditional sense of elitism in the arts as well.

The competition is presenting a prize-winners concert with the Bergen Philharmonic on 3 October 2019.

Elsewhere on this blog
  •  Zawazawa: recent works by Dai Fujikura (★★★½) - CD review
  • Noah Mosley and Elisabetta Campeti's Aurora at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★) - opera review
  • Less can sometimes be more: Verity Lane's The Crane at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★)  - opera review
  • Prom 47: A splendid Bruckner Eighth from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under music director Andris Nelsons (★★★) - concert review
  • A spine tingling performance from Simone Victor in the title role of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at this London Bel Canto Festival showcase performance  (★★★½) - opera review
  • Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo  - concert review  
  • A stage seven times the size of the Vienna State Opera: I chat to Daniel Serafin, artistic director of Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) in Austria  - interview
  • Intimate & highly engaging: Mari Eriksmoen & Sveinung Bjelland in recital at Oscarshall Palace, Oslo (★★★) - concert review
  • A tale of two violas: Imaginative viola duo disc with music associated with two 20th century viola greats (★★★½) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★) - opera review
  • A provocative production in so many ways, Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s Parsifal was sensitively directed and performed by a brilliant cast (★★★) - opera review
  • Prom 35: ‘Pictured within’ – Birthday variations for M.C.B. (Martyn Brabbins' 60th birthday)  - concert review
  • A rare appearance in London: Rameau's first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Home

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