In Europe, journalists can't help comparing it to shows like American Idol or Star Search. After all, you have a famous and powerful figure who can boost a young artist's career, hopeful singers flocking from all over to be part of his newest venture, and a small group of seven finalists culled from dozens of aspirants.
But Le Jardin des Voix, the vocal "academy" that William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are bringing to New York for the first time (March 16 and 17 as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series), is hardly a classical version of television's cutthroat hype extravaganzas. Not least because, once the participants are selected, there are no winners and losers.
Christie and his ensemble launched Le Jardin in 2002; this is the program's second outing. The idea is to gather a small group of singers not long out of school, bring them to the French city of Caen for two weeks of intensive coaching and rehearsal, and then take them on a tour of some of Europe's (and now New York's) finest concert halls with a program specially designed to showcase each performer's talents.
The Jardin des Voix "Class of 2005" includes three sopranos, a countertenor, a tenor, baritone, and bass; their average age is 27. The low voices have come from Germany, Britain has supplied a tenor, and Spain a countertenor; one soprano is from Malta and another from Algeria. There's even a New Yorker in the bunch, 28-year-old soprano Natasha Jouhl.
The singers will be performing a potpourri of 17th- and 18th-century works chosen to suit their specific talents and personalities by Christie and his co-director, harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss. Each of the performers will be featured in solo and ensemble work since both are so important in the Baroque repertoire. The music ranges from 17th-century Italians Domenico Mazzocchi and Luigi Rossi to Purcell, Handel, and Rameau, and includes an excerpt from Philidor's comic opera Tom Jones.
Christie has long been known as a talent-spotter, and many a leading light of the Baroque vocal scene has gotten a major career boost from working with him. To name just a few: French Handel diva Sandrine Piau; British tenor Mark Padmore, now in demand throughout Europe for Bach's Passions and Handel's oratorios; comic genius Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who has since won laughter and ovations the world over (including at New York City Opera) as the titular swamp nymph in Rameau's Platée; and most spectacularly of all, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose performances with Christie as Medea in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Médée made her an international star.
How does the conductor find such gifted artists? "When people write and ask for an audition," he says, "you always say yes. And then you spend a lot of time doing it."
Following through on that impulse led him to see the need for a new academy for young professional singers who want to concentrate on the Baroque repertoire, whose bourgeoning popularity Christie has done so much to fuel.
"It was just meeting a number of very talented people at the beginning of their careers," he relates from his dressing room at the Paris Opéra's Palais Garnier, where he is rehearsing a new staging of Handel's oratorio Hercules, "and realizing that this is an uncomfortable time‹when you're just starting out. That's where the hard work is and where the big disappointments start to happen.
"I was talking to Joyce DiDonato," says Christie, referring to the Kansas native, then starring in Hercules, who has won acclaim for her performance as Sister Helen Préjean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. "And she said, 'When I started out, I did 16 auditions in a row, from Scotland down to Spain, and it was the 16th audition where I lucked out.'
"This is the sort of young professional that we want to help," Christie continued. "Many of them have won competitions, but what you really want is for them to have concerts‹in good halls with good audiences. It's taking the classic vocal competition one, two, three steps further. Now all of these kids can get really prime exposure. And we pay them the way we'd pay a prime singer."
He's serious about the good halls and audiences, too. After two weeks of intensive coaching in February and a first performance in Caen, the members of Le Jardin des Voix will make the rounds of some of Europe's most prominent venues‹Madrid's Auditorio Nacional, Lisbon's Gulbenkian Foundation, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, London's Barbican Centre, the Cité de la Musique in Paris, and Geneva's Grand Théâtre‹before finishing up at Lincoln Center.
Such is Christie's reputation that you can be sure booking agents, artist managers, and influential critics will be there, scouting for talent. The young alumni of the first Jardin des Voix program in 2002 have gone on to perform at the Châtelet and Champs-Élysées theaters in Paris, Santa Fe Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid, and the Zurich Opera House, and in concert and on records with such conductors as René Jacobs, Nicholas McGegan, Ton Koopman, and Emmanuelle Haïm.
Naturally, young singers are eager to participate in anything that can get them such valuable exposure. Among all the hopeful and talented vocalists who flock to the Jardin auditions‹these seven were chosen from a final pool of 81‹what is it that catches Christie's eye and ear? "We're not looking for a Gilda when we're auditioning; we pick the voices that interest us, touch us, move us. Then we look for pieces to suit them. A beautiful voice, first, but then you look for someone who knows how to use the beautiful voice. Baroque music requires that the voice be flexible. And I look for expressivity and communication, because this music is hugely rhetorical, highly communicative. And I look for singers who are receptive."
Receptive they'll certainly need to be, because there's a lot of valuable information to soak up during the two weeks of Le Jardin's academy in Caen. In addition to rehearsal and coaching with Christie and Weiss, there are lectures and sessions with specialists in musicology, language, and theater. Christie cites a number of concerns particular to Baroque music that many young conservatory graduates don't realize they'll have to face: tuning issues, what to expect from a harpsichordist improvising a continuo part, what to tell a pianist who's unfamiliar with 18th-century style, and so on.
And was there anything in the first Jardin des Voix curriculum that Christie is changing for the second?
"Singers are always the same," he says good-naturedly. "They want to spend lots of time by themselves working with their accompanists. So we're making more time for that."
Matthew Westphal was editor of the online magazine andante.com from before the site's 2001 launch through 2005. In June 2006 he became editor of PlaybillArts.com.