Khushroo N. Suntook and Alvaro Domingo at the NCPA in February 2024

Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Comes to Mumbai

As the NCPA prepares for the grand welcome of the 31st edition of Operalia and the celebrated tenor himself, ON Stage goes behind the scenes of the world’s most prestigious opera competition to be held this September for the first time in India.

For participants of television talent shows of today, gaining a fan following and press attention has become somewhat of a given. Even then, success can be fleeting for winners who are crowned the best only until the ‘next’ best performer arrives. This is especially true for shows presented solely for the sake of entertainment, more so in these fast-paced times. For the young artiste of a specific style or genre like classical or operatic music, going through the generic talent machine can be both unproductive and unfulfilling whereas competitions focused on the art form can provide a much-needed fillip to their career. For the opera singer, Operalia is undoubtedly the world’s most prestigious competition of our times—one that was conceptualised three decades ago by the great Spanish tenor and conductor Plácido Domingo.

Since it was founded in 1993, the annual competition, presented by Rolex, has been instrumental in recognising, discovering and accelerating the careers of promising young singers of all operatic voice types between the ages of 20 and 32 from every corner of the world. Participants go through rigorous rounds of auditions before they are selected by a panel of distinguished international personalities to compete for the final round presented as a gala concert accompanied by a professional orchestra in the host city. The city of Mumbai will host the 31st edition of Operalia, and the Symphony Orchestra of India will accompany the finalists as they compete for top honours at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre this September. This is the first time the competition is coming to India and the occasion owes itself in no small measure to the growing international stature of the SOI and the consistent efforts of the NCPA, helmed by Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, to bring worldclass events to India.

Last month, Alvaro Domingo, Vice President, Operalia, was in Mumbai to represent his father’s association with the NCPA. “It is a pleasure for us to be in India. While Mumbai may not have the strongest tradition of opera, what’s most valuable is the invitation, the interest from our host. That is something we always take into account very seriously— the possibilities of the venue and those of the orchestra linked to the venue. To be able to add Mumbai to the list of all the wonderful cities around the world that we have been to was very attractive to us. I thank Chairman Khushroo Suntook for this warm invitation and hospitality,” he said at a press conference.

Commenting on hosting Operalia 2024, Mr. Suntook said, “I have had the great pleasure and honour of hearing Mr. Plácido Domingo over the last 30 or 40 years and he is, without doubt, one of the century’s greatest singers. Not many tenors want to give back to music, what they have earned in a hugely successful career. Mr. Domingo is an exception. And so, it is a double honour for the NCPA to associate with the great maestro and host his wonderful competition in September. Operalia 2024 will not only be a milestone for the NCPA but the music community of the country. The event will certainly inspire young singers and musicians to pursue Western classical music. It will be a privilege for the musicians of the SOI and Music Director Marat Bisengaliev to be a part of this event.”

Alvaro, who was at the NCPA for a three-day visit, also attended the opening concert of the SOI Spring 2024 Season. “We had a chance to tour the NCPA and identify all the right spaces that we will need in order to host the competition. You have a beautiful place here that will permit us to present our upcoming edition in a very satisfying way. It is also a privilege to be able to work with the Symphony Orchestra of India that will accompany and support our singers on the magical night of the final of the competition. I want to thank all of you who have done such a fantastic job since 2006 in founding the orchestra and bringing it to where it is now.”

Art imitates life

Aside from sharing the finer details of this seven-day competition, Alvaro shed light on Operalia’s b e g i n n i n g s , describing it as a “tremendous idea” that struck his father and mother, the soprano Marta Ornelas, during their days of learning the repertoire as they performed relentlessly in Tel Aviv. At the time, the twenty-something tenor imagined that it would be beneficial for young singers to experience the realities of the opera world, just like they had very early on in their career.

The first edition took place at the historic 1,979- seat opera house Palais Garnier in Paris in 1993. Later, Domingo would also go on to launch several resident training programmes for aspiring young singers and conductors through his Young Artist Program in Washington, Los Angeles and Valencia. “My father really established how much he cares for the future of this industry, this s art form and the talents of tomorrow,” shared Alvaro.

Every edition since then has seen the competition travel with the Operalia contingent in tow—30 to 40 finalists, jury members and Domingo himself— to some of the finest cities of the world including Budapest, Bordeaux, Lisbon and Madrid, right up to Cape Town, Guadalajara and Quebec. With its high level of operatic talent, the competition has floored audiences at London’s Royal Opera House, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro alla Scala in Milan, among other venerable concert halls. The 31st edition of Operalia in Mumbai this year will be the first for a South Asian city and the fourth for an Asian city after Tokyo, Beijing and Astana.

Producer of greats

A browse through Operalia’s winners over the years indicates the level of talent that rightly finds its way into the competition. Nina Stemme, regarded as the greatest Wagnerian soprano of today, won top prize at the inaugural edition 30 years ago. Other notable winners of the 1990s include multiple Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato and Argentine tenor José Cura. Even those who aren’t up to date with the world of opera will hardly fail to recognise the virtuosity of sopranos Angel Blue (winner of the second prize in 2009) and Pretty Yende (winner of the audience prize in 2011). The Grammy-winning Blue performed at the Opera Gala at the NCPA in 2015

Indeed, Operalia has proved to be a launch pad for some of the greatest voices in opera. Interestingly, for prizewinners, the window to secure coveted contracts with some of the most prestigious opera houses in Vienna, London and New York could be as short as three to six months. “Operalia has always intended to offer a three-pronged benefit to the singers. Not only are they heard by a panel of very important and influential people including opera casting directors who might consider them for upcoming opera seasons, but they also receive monetary support through the money prizes they receive. They also receive advice from the Operalia team and from my father and other people involved with the competition,” Alvaro explained during his Mumbai visit.

The process

Each year, the pre-selection jury listens to hundreds of applications received via Operalia’s application portal Embark. These applications, received as video recordings of opera arias, will soon be narrowed down to 30 or 40 top contenders who will arrive in Mumbai come September. Participation in the zarzuela category is also permitted. Domingo, who has for decades been promoting the genre across the world, grew up surrounded by Spanish opera and had even started his career singing it.

The 2024 edition of Operalia in Mumbai will be judged by a panel of distinguished representatives from London’s Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Staatsoper in Vienna and Salzburg Festival, among others. The jury presided by Domingo will listen to the top contenders over two days of quarterfinals, following which 20 participants will be selected to enter the semifinals; both these rounds are carried out in audition form.

Finally, 10 singers will move on to the finals that will be presented as a gala concert at the NCPA accompanied by its resident orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of India, slated to take place on 21st September. The orchestra will be made aware of the finalists’ pieces only a day before the finals and sight-reading may be their only option. “We will need to be at the top of our game. But we are excited about the possibility of Maestro Domingo conducting the orchestra,” said Bisengaliev, adding that the Mumbai Operalia will be a great opportunity for the orchestra to present themselves not only on stage but also on, every classical music aficionado’s go-to streaming platform.

Staging an opera in Mumbai is no easy task, owing to the lack of infrastructure for productions of its scale. At the NCPA, thanks to an international panel of experts—including Gian Galeazzo Ganzarolli, son of the distinguished baritone Wladimiro Ganzarolli— productions like La bohème Revisited, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly among others have been staged with aplomb. “I’m sure there are wonderful voices in India, but they need training and encouragement. We are in the beginning of a renaissance. We are hoping to stage a production of Aida conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta next year,” said Mr. Suntook who believes that initiatives like Operalia in the city could be a stepping stone in this direction. “Great voices will emerge from this most prestigious competition. One of the advantages—a selfish advantage, if you will—is they may remember that they won a competition in this hall in Mumbai and they will come back as stars. What’s important is creating creators of art—directors, costume makers, wig makers—and expanding the horizon of employment in the arts,” he added.

“To be able to come to India is very special for my father who remembers dearly when he made his India debut in 2008 in a concert he did with Maestro Zubin Mehta to commemorate the centennial of his father Mehli Mehta,” said Alvaro. “He hasn’t been to India since, and it’s a pleasure for him to be able to return with this competition that presents the new voices of today.”

By Beverly Pereira. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the March 2024 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.