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REVIEW: The Audition

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 17, 2009 at 3:09 a.m.

— The Audition is a straightforward documentary by Susan Froemke that follows a group of 11 aspiring young opera singers as they compete in the New York Metropolitan Opera's 2007 National Council Auditions Grand Finals Concert. It's being shown once, at 2 p.m. Sunday at UA Breckenridge in Little Rock, as part of the Met's ongoing series of high-definition presentations in movie theaters. Tickets are $15.

While the Met series is a boon to local opera fans, the uninitiated will find much to like in this American Idol for Eggheads true-life story of competition, triumph and disappointment. While none of the principals reveal themselves as a stereotypical diva or drama queen - they all remain civil and say polite things - distinct personalities emerge and suppressed sentiments have a way of leaking out.

Kiera Duffy, a slightly built 27-year-old soprano from Philadelphia, wonders aloud if her petite size might be held against her in a world where big bodies are seen as necessary to support big voices. At the same time, Amber Wagner, a plus size soprano from California, expresses her hope that the judges will pay sufficient attention to the singers' voices and not be swept away by more glamorous appearances. Meow, anyone?

But it's the men who seem the most competitive, especially 22-year-old tenor Michael Fabiano, who looks and talks more like a middleweight contender than a vocal artist, openly admitting that there are politics to be played in securing a career - there's always a hot new tenor in line ready to step in and take your place. His primary foil is the prodigiously talented, bordering-on smug tenor Alek Shrader, who makes much of his desire to sing the aria "Ah, Mes Amis" from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, a technically difficult piece with nine high C's that is a highlight of Pavarotti's repertoire.

(Shrader calls the piece a "slam dunk," which may not have quite been the sports metaphor he was looking for, while Fabiano rolls his eyes and wonders if reaching a high C is all that - maybe a well-sung Bflat could be as gratifying.)

Then there's soft-spoken, striving Ryan Smith - a 30-year-old tenor from Los Angeles with less formal training than the others but a lot more life experience who seems genuinely happy just to be given the opportunity to sing at the Met. (Smith's story adds a bitter bass note to the film; he was diagnosed with lymphoma a few months after the competition and died in November.)

Froemke - a veteran documentarian who worked with the Maysles brothers on Grey Gardens (1975) and more recently produced HBO's documentary series Addiction - records the proceedings in a matter-of fact style, judiciously splicing some interview footage into the mostly fly-on-the-wall, direct cinema-style production. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that she undercuts the suspense of the competition by spending a disproportionate amount of time on a few singers, which makes it fairly easy to figure out which of the finalists will prevail.

But as a backstage look at the business of opera - with the bonus of a few thrilling performance sequences - The Audition is outstanding. Bravissimo.

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 04/17/2009

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