Voice of Black Opera 2022 review – worthy winner brings drama and technique

Voice of Black Opera 2022 review – worthy winner brings drama and technique

Town Hall, Birmingham
Despite the narrow choice of material, there were some very strong individual performances, with well-deserved honours going to Rachel Duckett

Impressive … Rachel Duckett sings with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, at this year’s Voice of Black Opera final.

Three lyric sopranos, a dramatic mezzo and a tenor made up the finalists for this year’s Voice of Black Opera competition, organised by the Black British Classical Foundation, and open to singers from the Commonwealth. Britain, Canada, South Africa and Jamaica were represented in the final, in which each of the contestants sang a group of arias including a duet with one of three professional singers, with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, as well as a contemporary song with piano accompaniment by a black or south Asian composer.

The programme booklet for the evening failed however to explain any of the competition’s conditions – the age limits for entrants, or what had to be included in their choice of repertoire – though it was at pains to list who was responsible for their hair and makeup. Nor did it give the ages of the finalists, which surely matters when young singers are being assessed, especially when as here their range of experience seemed to vary quite widely, from some who had only just graduated from music school, to those who had already had taken solo roles with companies around Europe.

In fact the choice of operatic material was disappointingly narrow. Mozart was the earliest composer represented – there was no baroque opera at all – while from the 20th century there were just a couple of Richard Strauss items and one aria from Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Given that one of the two prizes, the Samuel Coleridge Taylor award, included the chance to work with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group on a premiere, the lack of more modern repertoire was surprising.

Thando Mjandana (right) duets with Parvathi Subbiah at the Voice of Black Opera competition.

But in the end all that matters with music competitions is whether the winners are the plausible ones, and here that did seem to be the case. There were good individual performances elsewhere, especially from the Canadian mezzo Chantelle Grant, but the judges gave the Samuel Coleridge Taylor award to the South African tenor Thando Mjandana, who had delivered some stylish Mozart, and showed off his coloratura agility in a number from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment. And the main prize, the Sir Willard White Trophy, which includes coaching at WNO and an appearance with its orchestra, went to the British Jamaican soprano Rachel Duckett.

Apart from showing impressive technique in Gilda’s aria Caro Nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto and Zerbinetta’s So War es mit Pagliazzo from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Duckett was the only one of the finalists who really suggested that she was giving a dramatic performance, and that what she was singing was part of a theatrical work. She’s already worked with Opera Nice, and that experience showed.