By Voice Alone is a ground-breaking competition with an ambitious aim: to overcome bias within the world of classical singing and seek out raw vocal talent from as wide a pool as possible. This is a competition with a difference – the first round is a blind audition, which means no CVs, no headshots and no names – instead, the candidates are judged by voice alone. Melanie Lodge, its creator, tells us more.
Tell us why you started By Voice Alone. What do you want to achieve?
We created #ByVoiceAlone to open up opportunities for all singers, particularly those who may have felt left out of classical voice competitions before. We wanted to start something that better serves groups that have historically reported encountering bias at some stage in their careers – women, BAME singers, trans singers, and singers who have disabilities, for instance. This contest starts with a blind audition – no CVs, names, experience or upper age limits, where candidates will be judged By Voice Alone.
What are some of the barriers that singers experience when entering the profession?
It can be difficult to make headway in the profession unless you’ve come up through the established routes – via a conservatoire, or cathedral school background, for example. It’s usually at institutions like these that young singers first hear about the opportunities that start them on a career to singing. There’s a knock-on effect too as without these early opportunities, singers are less likely to get auditioned for further work.
Another barrier is age. Many of the competitions that successfully launch careers have arbitrary age restrictions and often you’ll see a younger age set for women than for men. This is something that we are particularly keen to see change in the industry.
Something that affects us all (both positively and negatively) is unconscious bias. We know from all the recent research that no matter how hard we try to be impartial, unconscious bias regarding age, background, ethnicity or gender, can and does affect decisions. A blind audition process circumvents this situation and prevents us from judging an artist by anything other than their voice.
How is the industry at large responding to the challenge of opening the profession to a wider group?
Although there is a long way to go, there is no doubt that huge steps have been made within the profession over the last few years. There is definitely a growing conversation around lack of diversity and we have seen more and more companies actively encouraging an open dialogue around promoting diversity within the profession. Many of the UK’s major houses developed amazing participation and access wings: the Royal Opera House’s Bridge programme, for instance, which connects young people with art and culture or ENO’s ‘Unplugged’ series of after-school events.
How have you been working with opera companies and others in the industry?
Our jury includes representatives from ROH, ENO, WNO, Scottish Opera and The Grange Festival. What has been overwhelmingly exciting is the willingness of these companies to embrace the ethos behind By Voice Alone. Almost all the major houses and summer festivals were prepared to be involved, and even those who couldn’t be there in person at the competition have been incredibly responsive and supportive of our shared aim of widening access to the profession. It’s something that we can all get behind and work together to make happen. We’ve met with a lot of encouragement from companies who are keen to lead change and who see By Voice Alone as an exciting opportunity to collaborate and disrupt the industry in a really positive way. This is all about finding and nurturing raw talent and giving singers who might have previously been invisible a platform to showcase their potential in a very real way.
What does the competition involve?
We are starting with one competition focusing on Opera, following with a second competition for Oratorio & Song later in 2019. The first round is a blind audition, with a second round in front of a panel of industry professionals, and a live final. Everyone who applies is guaranteed a first round audition but we have limited space, so we’re running things on a first-come-first-served basis. There’s a minimum of £5,000 pounds in prize money and the opportunity to sing for the main opera houses, companies, choral societies, conductors and industry casting professionals.
Who is this competition for?
This competition is for anyone who is committed to following a career in classical singing, whether that’s opera, oratorio or song. There are no age limits and no hard-and-fast rules about prior training, so it really does open a door for lots of people who may not be eligible for other contests. We’re very aware that there may be singers out there with a wonderful vocal facility, who simply haven’t had access to the training and opportunities they need to develop into mature artists. We wanted to include prizes specifically for these singers, so in the first round, the panel will select two promising voices to receive a ‘Raw Talent Award.’ The aim of these awards is to offer financial support that will help these singers embark on further training to realise their potential.
What difference do you think By Voice Alone will make?
We hope that By Voice Alone will be the first step towards making a significant and measurable change to the levels of diversity represented on the UK’s concert, oratorio and opera stages. We want to see more BAME artists on stage, more disabled artists on stage, and more artists with a range of backgrounds and training. We feel strongly that achieving this will create a richer artistic offering for audiences. And, as young people from diverse backgrounds see something of themselves reflected on stage, we’re confident it will encourage them and their families to engage with classical music, too.
What’s next for By Voice Alone?
By Voice Alone is a pilot programme that we hope will be the launchpad for further projects. We’re very aware that a blind audition, while a step in the right direction, can only go so far. The problem of lack of opportunity exists at a more grassroots level, too, and is something that needs tackling early on. In future years we plan to connect young singers directly with the existing system, helping them to plug in to the support networks that are already in place. We’ll achieve this through a variety of initiatives, such as masterclasses, summer programmes, in-school workshops and performance opportunities that offer them the longer-term support they need to be successful.
Ready to apply for By Voice Alone? Register your interest today.
Applications open at the end of January, so register your interest to ensure you’re the first to know!