We say young singers aren’t what they used to be, and then we make huge demands on them. The tenor Matthew Grills was one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2012 — meaning that he made it through several tough rounds and past a number of different judges, including a final round on the Met stage. He was, of course, singing opera arias. On Sunday afternoon, the Washington Performing Arts Society and Vocal Arts D.C. brought him to the Terrace Theater — for a song recital. Song and opera are different animals, and not every opera singer is a successful recitalist, but today’s young singers are expected to produce both on command, at an equally high level.
Early in my career, a Met official took me to task for talking about the Met Auditions winners as if they were supposed to be stage-ready professionals; the competition, I was told, rewards potential rather than polish. Yet a recital like this requires all kinds of polish, and Grills, who certainly has plenty of potential, served it up with aplomb. He’s cultivated all the right ingredients. Good diction in four languages, check. A pleasant demeanor and pleasant voice that can morph from one style to another, check. Earnestness and a palpable desire to do well, check.
At moments you could see the qualities that led him to victory: the way the voice warmed up and began to flow in the set of Tosti that closed the program, or the blend of solid singing and restrained ardor that so well fit Wolf’s “Verborgenheit” in a set of four of that composer’s settings of poems by Eduard Mörike. And he had to struggle, throughout, with the loud, open-top piano accompaniment of Tyson Deaton, who was just as earnest and proper and eager to lead as Grills was.
So it wasn’t quite a compelling afternoon? If the Met auditions are to reward potential, let’s not blame Grills for that. Let’s blame, instead, the teaching that so drills young singers in all the rules and rights and wrongs of vocal production that it strips all the sensuous enjoyment away from the act of singing itself. Grills veritably strained with a desire to do well, to communicate, to get it all right. He picked a fine program that included a lot of particularly sensuous songs about romantic and even physical love: Jules Massenet’s “Sonnet”; “My Lizard,” from Barber’s five-song cycle “Despite and Still”; Britten’s “My beloved is mine and I am his.” But he wasn’t able to lose himself in the music — or draw the listeners in with him.
Young tenors, and those who train them, take note: If you are able to sing Tosti’s “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” and have all the notes and even the hint of a melting quality in your voice, then you better make sure that everyone listening to you is in a puddle on the floor by the end of that song, caressed by your voice singing “chiudimi, o Notte, nel tuo sen materno” (“close me, o Night, within your maternal breast”), thrilling along with your final high note. That’s the kind of challenge young singers should be trying to meet.