The Japan Times
Singing their hearts out for chance of lifetime
Twelve of Japan’s finest young singers showcased their vocal talents at the fifth IFAC-Juilliard Prize Singing Competition Oct. 14 and Oct 15.
The two-day event was held at the Playhouse auditorium, part of the New National Theatre in Tokyo, where competitors had a chance to win a scholarship valued at over $50,000 to attend one of the world’s leading music schools, the Juilliard School in the U.S., as well as other prizes.
The main sponsor of the event was the International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC), a non-profit organization founded in Japan in 1996 with the stated aim of promoting “social welfare activities through music and arts-related events.”
On the first day, seven of the twelve competitors participated in a competition-cum-workshop in which they sang selections from a prepared repertoire of songs and received on-the-spot vocal coaching from Brian Zeger, artistic director of vocal arts at the Juilliard School. On the second day, the remaining five competitors took part in the second round of this competition and workshop before announcements were made about who would proceed to the finals in the evening.
“Mozart is repeating this text in order to intensify and show a different dimension of the emotion,” explained Zeger to one of the singers, Miho Washizu, during the competition on Wednesday. Strict but encouraging in his vocal critiques, Zeger focused particularly on the meaning and sound of the lyrics, asking singers to work on their pronunciation and ability to get in character, while also giving instructions on pure technique. “The moment you start singing, the voice has to be this beautiful weightless thing. Like satin. And vibrato all the time.”
Competitors were eligible to win one of two prizes, the IFAC-Juilliard Encouragement Prize (also known as the Dr. Handa Encouragement Prize) and the IFAC-Juilliard Prize. The Encouragement Prize includes voice lessons at the Juilliard School, located at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, a round trip plane ticket to New York and accommodations worth a total of ¥300, 000. The ¥500,000 top prize, the IFAC-Juilliard Prize, includes free English lessons at a cram school in Japan, voice lessons at Juilliard, a round-trip ticket and accommodations. Moreover, winners also have the chance to attend an audition at Juilliard, and those accepted receive a scholarship of up to $50,000 to cover the cost of tuition and dormitory accommodations for one year.
“Singing is not just in the sound, not just in the voice. What we judges are looking for is their humanity,” said Haruhisa Handa, chairman of the IFAC, during an impromptu speech given at the closing of the competition. Handa is a patron of the arts and himself performs as a singer in various operas. “We judges can observe a singer’s emotions, daily practices and character just by listening to them perform for a few minutes.”
The pre-screenings for the competition were held at the Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tokyo and at the Phoenix Hall in Osaka on July 17 and 18, and the twelve singers were selected from a total of 61 applicants. For all stages of the competition — pre-screening, judging and final judging — the participants were asked to prepare a repertoire of six songs: an Italian aria or art song from the 18th-century or earlier, an original song in English, a German lied, a French melodie, an opera or oratorio aria and another selection from any language.
Given that the judging took into account pronunciation, this meant that the competitors had to be proficient in at least four European languages in addition to possessing virtuoso singing talent in order to make the cut. In other words, the selection procedure guaranteed that all competitors were the cream of the crop from among Japan’s budding operatic singers.
“Some singers do poorly at competitions and auditions in Japan, but are well received overseas, and vice versa, so which standard should we choose?” Handa queried the audience rhetorically during his speech. “I definitely think the global standard should take precedence.”
On the evening of the second day, the first two encouragement prizes went to Emiri Nakagawa and Mayuko Kominami, and immediately afterwards, Soshiro Ide and Satomi Aihara were chosen to go on to the final held that same night.
In the final, Ide performed a selection from “Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City), an opera by American composer E.W. Korngold and then “The Marriage of Figaro,” a comic opera by Mozart, accompanied by pianist Akane Iida for both. A baritone, Ide’s singing was technically smooth and his performance dramatic, demonstrating his characterization prowess through rich facial expressions and gestures.
Soprano Aihara, on the other hand, performed a selection from Verdi’s opera “La Traviata,” Debussy’s “Apparition” and Strauss’ “Seranade,” accompanied throughout by pianist Rumi Tanikawa. With unwavering composure and strong stage presence, Aihara gave a hypnotizing performance, demonstrating the incredible emotive power of her voice.
A panel of judges at the Juilliard School connected to the auditorium by satellite observed the performances, which were counted as the first stage audition for the school. In the end, Ide was turned down by the panel, becoming the third recipient of the Encouragement Prize by default, while Aihara was chosen as the winner of the competition and awarded the IFAC-Juilliard Prize.
With an acceptance rate of only 6.7 percent (fall 2013), the school’s enrollment standards are considered strict and the winner (or winners if multiple singers are selected) is not guaranteed acceptance into the school. Aihara must still pass the second and final audition in order to be accepted into the school and receive the $50,000 scholarship.
The remaining eight competitors were: Shimon Yoshida, Tomomi Kajiwara, Rui Hoshina, Yuko Makiba, Yukari Nishio, Miho Washizu, Satoe Amano, and Marie Tsutsumi.
Yashiro Eita, former television personality and elected member of the House of Councilors, served as the master of ceremonies for the event. It was broadcast on Ustream where it was accessed by nearly 4,500 viewers, with 1,683 on Oct. 14 and 2,786 on Oct. 15, when the final results were announced.
“It is important to get a world-class education in a world-class environment surrounded by world-class people, and the younger the better,” said Handa. “Without such a chance, even though you might have the ability, the character and the ambition, you will be like a flower that dies without blooming or a precious treasure that is coveted too long and left to go to waste. That’s what we were thinking when we began this Juilliard audition.”
The purpose of holding this annual competition, according to IFAC is to give talented young Japanese singers an opportunity to study at a top-notch overseas music school. Applications are accepted in spring and there is no charge to apply. The winner of the inaugural prize given in 2009, Takaoki Onishi graduated from Juilliard and is now active in the American music world, having won several other competitions.
IFAC started collaborating with the Juilliard School in 1999 by offering support for the production of operas run by their vocal arts students. As part of IFAC Opera, it also facilitates annual operas, while promoting various other types of performance and art including noh, kyogen, ballet and gallery exhibitions. According to their pamphlet, IFAC had close to 2,000 individual and corporate members as of March 2014, and currently has branches in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
The Juilliard School was founded by Augustus Juilliard in 1905 in the hopes of establishing a North American educational institution that would rival the conservatories of Europe. Graduates have won numerous prizes and recognitions, including 105 Grammys and 24 Academy Awards. Other collaborations between IFAC and Juilliard were featured in volume 206 of the Japanese music magazine Mostly Classic.