Thursday, February 23, 2012

The History of MONC

Mrs. Belmont by Cecil Beaton
Walking through the Metropolitan Opera last night I was reminded how big of a role donors have played in the history of the organization.  Every wall has some kind of plaque on it commemorating the generosity of this company or that individual.

Mrs. Eleanor Robson Belmont is one of those donors who left a lasting legacy.  She first made her mark in the spring of 1935.  Even though the Met was one of the foremost opera houses in America, if not the world, there was still a shortage of funding caused by the effects of the Great Depression.

Mrs. Belmont had the idea to create an organization of opera loving members from all over the US, and so the Opera Guild was born; membership dues support the MetOpera to this day.  The Guild published the first Opera News in 1936 (it started out as a newsletter and is now one of the foremost publications with regards to opera), organized the first backstage tour and started the lecture series and programs for students.  As Mrs. Belmont wrote in her memoirs, The Fabric of Memory: "Democratization of the opera had begun!"

In 1952 Mrs. Belmont founded the Metropolitan Opera National Council to increase national interest and support for the MetOpera.  What started of as a membership group to gather financial support for the Met on a national level soon became the primary organizers of the auditions the Met had been setting up themselves since 1935.

At that time the program was called Auditions of the Air, a radio show where talented young American singers competed for a contract with the Met.  The Auditions of the Air continued for the next 23 years, first sponsored by Sherwin-Williams and then by the American Broadcasting Company.  The only change came in 1950 when Rudolf Bing became General Manager of the Met; first prize winners no longer received an automatic contract, they could be awarded one only at the discretion of the artistic staff.

William Marshall, director of the Auditions of the Air in 1950, started noticing that the program was dominated by New York singers, especially since it was becoming more and more expensive for aspiring artists to travel to New York to audition.  The Met's board thought the National Council would be the perfect vehicle to make the auditions a national affair and set up Regional Auditions.

The auditions were now controlled by the National Council, and with the demise of the Auditions of the Air due to a lack of sponsorship, they decided to bring all Regional winners to New York for a concert on the Met stage with the Met orchestra.  All expenses would be paid for, and the winners would be coached  by the Met staff for a full week while attending many performances.

Mrs. Belmont in the Belmont Room at the Met
In a few more years, smaller District Auditions would be added as a starting point to funnel qualifying contestants into the Region Finals.  Up to this day this structure persists, with 42 Districts and 14 Regions.  At first ten winners were chosen from a pool of 25 Regional winners to perform on the Met stage, but in 1998 another round of competitions was added.  That year the Grand Finals Concert was born, and instead of ten chosen winners, 5 winners were (and still are) picked by a panel of distinguished judges from a group of Finalists.

The National Council Auditions are an amazing opportunity for up and coming opera stars, as it gives them a foot in the door with the Metropolitan Opera.  Not only does each winner receive a cash price (Grand Final winners receive $15,000 - Non Winners receive $5000 - Semi Finalists receive $1500), but every Regional winner can return to the Met over the course of three years to audition for its artistic staff.  Not only does this give the Met the opportunity to guide the singers in their career and keep an eye on their progress, but the singers get another opportunity to receive an additional $5000 in grant money if qualifying.

Winners are often admitted to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program to complete their training before they are send on the Met stage.  As many as 100 singers per year on the Met roster have auditioned for the National Council at some point, and since the beginning of the program there have been hundreds of Grand Final winners, many who have become the opera divas of their generation.

The 1960's were dominated by Frederica von Stade (currently the National Advisor of the Auditions) and Paul Pliska.  As a matter of fact, Mr. Pliska retired only last month when he sang his last role on the Met stage in Puccini's Tosca.  It was an unforgetable event with the whole cast on stage and a moving speech by current Met General Manager Peter Gelb.  The 70's featured stars such as Samual Ramey and Wendy White, and Renee Fleming won in the 80's, as did Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham.  Stephanie Blythe and Eric Cutler won in the 90's, and since 2000 we have had many more winners (such as Angela Meade, Lawrence Brownlee and Susanna Phillips) who are now world renown opera singers.

The National Council Auditions have a rich history, and they will continue to search for those few opera idols who will be the stars of the future.  More than 1500 singers compete each year, coming from all over the US, Canada and Puerto Rico for a chance to perform at the Met.

The Eastern Region has had a very successful 2011/2012 season.  We had 75 applicants from all over the country, and the world, since singers can compete in the district if their choice, regardless of where they live.  From those 75 we are sending two amazing singers on to the Semi-Finals, which will be held on March 11th when the contestants will sing on the Met Stage accompanied by a pianist.  These auditions are closed to the public, but we hope to be rooting for Ricardo Rivera and Will Liverman at the Grand Finals Concert on March 18th.

Such a successful season could not have been possible without the help of all our wonderful volunteers and the generous donations by many supporters of this contest.  With the money raised at galas and donated by individuals and corporations, we were able to offer Region Finalists a cash award of $10,000 each.  No one left empty handed - each competitor had the opportunity to get feedback from the panel of distinguished judges.

Please consider making a donation to the MONC ER so we can continue the tradition of sending exceptional talent on to the Met stage.  Go to for more information.

Sources: The Metropolitan Opera Guild - Guild History and The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions A Brief History

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