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Dispatch from Milan: Domingo's Operalia begins

April 26, 2010 |  6:49 am

Plácido Domingo's traveling singing competition/road show Operalia kicked off Sunday on the most storied opera stage in the event's 18-year history.

Twenty young singers followed one another at hallowed La Scala during the first round in the operatic hotbed of Milan. The annual event gravitates to cities with ongoing ties to Domingo — Los Angles hosted in 2000 and 2004. This year Domingo is celebrating his 40th anniversary with La Scala and is singing the title role in Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," and so Operalia has landed here.

Domingoposter Sophisticated Milan may be blasé about many things, but along with design and soccer, opera is not one of them. Domingo's presence in town is a local happening, and it is hard not to bump into his image touting Operalia ... quite literally in the case of the advertisement placards dangling from the ceilings inside subway cars.

As to the competition itself, it's a three-round elimination contest. Forty young singers from around the world -- including five from the United States -- began singing arias on Sunday and will keep at it through Monday, just them on the stage, with a piano for accompaniment and a 15-judge panel constituting the audience in the six-tiered hall. After the first round, 20 semi-finalists sing Tuesday and then on May 2 the final 10 contestants will choose an aria and sing it, though this time in front of a discerning La Scala audience of up to 3,000 and with Domingo conducting the Filharmonica della Scala.

The top male and female singers each win $30,000, with as many as six prizes awarded in all for first, second and third places if the judges find that many singers they like. Beyond the prize money, competitors receive a hearing in front of a judging panel consisting of artistic directors from such opera heavyweight towns as Vienna and London and such companies as Bayreuth in Germany and the Met in New York. From the extensive scribbling going on Sunday, it seemed likely that some judges weren't just tallying scores but making notes on casting decisions for upcoming seasons.

One perk that seems in place is that more than 15 Operalia winners have been cast by Domingo-led L.A. Opera, including major up and comers such as soprano Elizabeth Futral, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Rolando Villazón.

No baritone has ever won Operalia. A bass-baritone and a mezzo-soprano have won it once, but the glamor figures of opera — soprano and tenor — have dominated. As a result, it was no surprise that of the 40 competitors, 24 were soprano and tenors.

Most performers sang two arias, one of their own choosing and a second announced on the spot after Domingo huddled in consultation with one or two of the judges to decide on a complementary piece that might illuminate singing styles and skills. Rossini and Puccini were artist favorites, perhaps because of the influence of La Scala, but the panel also stayed largely with Italian composers, tapping everyone from Donizetti to Verdi.

Domingo himself seemed hale in his role as impressario and event leader. His professional work in Milan is his first since undergoing surgery for colon cancer in February. After showing no evidence of strain in singing the lead in the three-hour-plus "Boccanegra" the night before, he was a proactive presence at the competition Sunday. From his seat with the judges, Domingo occasionally accompanied a younger singer's delivery with slight hand motions, not seen by the singer, conveying the tenor's personal cadences to the music. Each performance earned a business-like "thank you" in whatever language was appropriate to the singer's nationality.

The winners will be known Sunday. Check back with Culture Monster for the results.

-- Christopher Smith

Photo: Ad for Operalia on a Milan streetcar. Credit: Sherry Stern / Los Angeles Times.