Adrianne Pieczonka: The soprano and CMIM jurist is ‘very pro-competition’

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The 2022 vocal edition of the Concours musical international de Montréal has assembled a distinguished international jury drawn from the crème de la crème of top name singers, administrators and voice teachers. The panel will be chaired by Zarin Mehta, former Managing Director of Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The other jury members are British baritone Sir Thomas Allen, former Chair of the Juillliard Voice Department Edith Bers, German bass-baritone Robert Holl, German collaborative pianist Hartmut Höll, Artistic Director of the Festival de Lanaudière Renaud Loranger, former Metropolitan Opera Artistic Administrator Richard Rodzinski and German soprano Christine Schäfer.

But the jurist closest to the hearts of Canadian classical voice lovers is Adrianne Pieczonka, one of our country’s most celebrated sopranos of the past three decades. Her transition to the role of vocal pedagogue and administrator has come about progressively and naturally. Since 2019, Pieczonka has been Chair in Voice at the Glenn Gould School (GGS) at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, and as she puts it, the pandemic has certainly played its role in shifting her career trajectory. “I had done yearly master classes at GGS for probably four or five years prior to [2019]. So I knew this school; I knew the faculty. I kind of thought I would do it alongside my performing. And then COVID hit, of course, and everything was cancelled. So I could really just devote my time at GGS. I used to get booked up four to five years in advance. I don’t think that happens, even for the top singers anymore,” says Pieczonka.

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Vocal competitions played a big part in launching Pieczonka’s international career. In the fall of 1988, she competed in three, winning the prestigious International Vocal Competition ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, was grand-prize winner at French coloratura soprano Mady Mesplé’s competition in France, and was awarded third prize at the International Singing Competition of Toulouse—notably, the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky won that year! That spate of competition success jumpstarted Pieczonka’s European career: “In the audience of ’s-Hertogenbosch there were, I’d say, five to 10 top agents from Europe. And I got several business cards saying, please, would I come to Karlsruhe, would I come to Dusseldorf, and the most emphatic guy [was]from Vienna, my first agent. And he just kept ringing me and saying, ‘Please, please come to Vienna and sing for the Volksoper’ … and I did, and I got a contract on the spot. I accredit that [contract to]the exposure and winning [otherwise]I don’t know if my path would have been directly to a house in Vienna.”

Competition and elitism are current hot topics in the culture wars, inciting strong opinions both for and against. Pieczonka acknowledges this, saying “I think a lot of people maybe think that the competition is dying out. Maybe people don’t like the idea of winners and losers, or runners-up. My feeling is that ‘yep, it may not be fully fair.’ The jury, we’re just humans ourselves, and we have opinions. I just think that you have to have thick skin to be a singer. So, I’m very pro-competition.”

It’s clear though, that young singers today face a very different reality from Pieczonka’s in 1988. Back then, the Iron Curtain was still very real, “and we didn’t have these amazing singers from Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Georgia, who are often cleaning up! We also didn’t have the Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese, who also do very well, especially the Koreans.” One doesn’t need to look further than the results of CMIM’s last vocal edition in 2018 for confirmation, when South Korean tenors Mario Bahg and Konstantin Lee took first and third prize in the aria division with Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo in second.

The career landscape for young singers has changed drastically in the past two years alone, never mind since 1988. Many opera companies offering young-artist programs have had to hold off auditioning prospective participants for one or two years. There is even more than the usual glut of eager, talented singers competing for scarce, highly coveted spots in training programs and at European “fest” companies offering permanent ensemble contracts. The much-vaunted term “‘portfolio artist” has gained traction, implying that young singers should no longer expect to rely solely on performance engagements to make a living. They must now invent their own opportunities, manage their own indie companies, teach, do voice-overs and work as extras on film sets.

As a working singer with a 33-year career, Pieczonka is in no ivory tower and, therefore, well placed to advise the young artists that come into her orbit. “All I can do is support people. It’s never for me to sort of say, ‘Listen, honey, you’re not going to make it.’ It’s my role to support them; to train them. Yes, be realistic, if things aren’t working, if they keep getting rejections, okay, let’s work on that.” says Pieczonka. But she also acknowledges the difficulties faced by today’s young artists: “I know many, many gifted singers who are sort of saying, ‘I’ve got nothing, I don’t have an agent and I’ve got an empty diary. What do I do?’ That’s heartbreaking.”

For the 13 Canadians among a total of 32 competitors at CMIM 2022, all hopes are that this competition will prove to be the leg-up they need to succeed in the current challenging performing arts environment.

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