Normally, there is just about no one more alone on stage than a contestant in an opera competition.
He or she stands at center stage, with just a pianist to one side, facing an audience and judges while singing an aria as if life or career depended on it.
At the ninth annual competition sponsored by the Opera Guild of Southern California on Sunday at the University of Judaism, there was the requisite pianist, audience, judges and earnest contestants. But the 12 finalists, all of whom came from the Southern California area, were never up there alone.
All the numbers on the program were done in ensembles--ranging in size from duets to a nonet--which is a radical departure from the opera competition norm. In an art form known for its giant egos, these singers were being judged on their teamwork.
"I have never heard of this being done anywhere in the world," said Peter Hemmings, general director of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and one of five judges at the competition. "But I am all for it. It gives you an idea of how they relate to each other on stage, both musically and dramatically."
"Every one of the people you see at these competitions can sing in the shower," said judge Jim Svejda, the host and producer of several programs on KUSC radio, including the nationally distributed "The Record Shelf."
"But when you see them in ensembles, you don't just get an idea of what they can do as singers. You also get an idea of who they are as people."
For the singers, working in ensembles was not entirely comforting, especially when the company is the competition.
"It is a strain," mezzo-soprano Anita Krause said with a laugh just before the competition began in front of an audience of about 500. "But it does give you a chance to show another side of yourself to the judges.
"I personally love it," said Krause, who lives in South Pasadena. "It puts a strain on you, but it makes it more fun."
It did not look like a great deal of fun backstage before the competition. Some of the contestants paced nervously as the opening announcements were made by the organizers. Others stood alone in corners singing softly to themselves, and a couple looked as if they were praying.
At stake was not just the prize money--ranging from $500 to finalists who don't place in the top five up to $3,000 for first place. It was also the chance to be heard by judges the likes of Hemmings and Irene Dalis, a famed soprano who is now artistic director of the San Jose Opera.
"These are the people who can hire you," said soprano Patricia Prunty of Huntington Beach. "Winning would be good for the ego and good for the pocketbook, but getting a chance to sing for these people is as important."
And it was not all doom and gloom back there. Krause made jokes to break the tension, a few of the contestants actually held hands and tenor Mark Garcia of Placentia, who was part of the first group to perform a quintet from Mozart's "The Magic Flute," wryly commented just before going on stage: "I am forever grateful that I have the first sung word on the program."
These finalists, selected from more than 50 applicants after a round of preliminary auditions, were given the list of selections they would sing at the finals only 10 days before. They only had a handful of rehearsals, together.
"Sure we're competitive, but we had to stick together just to get through this," said baritone Tod Fitzpatrick of Pasadena.
The ensemble competition was the brainchild of Natalie Limonick, who was head of USC's opera program from 1974 to 1986 and is now a private coach.
"I was just so tired of going to all these auditions and seeing these singers who 'Have five arias, will travel,' " said Limonick, who has judged numerous competitions. "They might have wonderful voices, but so many times I have seen people hired on the basis of an audition and later it turns out they can't learn music; they can't move across a stage."
Limonick chose the selections, trying to fit them to the singers who had been chosen. "They gave me only one tenor, so I needed him for a lot of scenes," Limonick said.
Garcia, the tenor, had to learn six different parts, while some of the others had to learn as few as two.
As the singers came backstage after finishing a number, it was common for them to give each other little hugs or even high fives. After a sextet from "The Marriage of Figaro," Garcia was so elated that he saluted his fellow singers by sticking his fist in the air and sotto voce declaring, "Nailed it!"
The 14-selection program included duets from "Norma" and "Orfeo and Euridice," a quartet from "Fidelio" and trios from "Beatrice and Benedict."
Late in the program, the judges had the option of asking to hear solos by the singers, but none were requested.
"You can tell everything you need by listening to them sing together," Dalis said. "You can hear their musicianship, how precise they are in singing the role. When they sing together, you also get of sense of their musicality, the way they turn a phrase to make it more effective."
In the end, Fitzpatrick won first prize, followed by Krause, Prunty, contralto Ellen Rabiner of West Hollywood and baritone Eli Villanueva of Canoga Park. All the finalists won a weekend's worth of intensive opera workshops to be held in Idyllwild to work on stage movement, phonetics, art song interpretation and other matters, including, of course, ensemble singing.
Limonick, who personally gave $10,000 toward staging of the competition and the workshop--which cost about $22,000, including prize money, with the balance raised through other donations--hopes that the workshop will eventually be expanded.
"It will probably take at least 10 years to find the funding, the facility and a faculty, but eventually I would like to have these students put away from the world for six months or so," she said, "so that they can study all these things and get ready for the stage.
"I'm 71 years old, so people can see it is not for myself," she said. "I'm on the other side of my life. But it would be a nice thing to leave behind."