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My Experience at the Metropolitan Opera's Laffont Competition by Meridian Prall

My Experience at the Metropolitan Opera’s Laffont Competition

by Meridian Prall

The Metropolitan Opera’s Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition process will go down as one of my most treasured memories. There is nothing like standing alone on the Met stage, singing an aria that you love so much, and then when the orchestra finishes the last chord, hearing the most overwhelming applause you’ve ever heard in your life. It makes me cry remembering the sound of that.

Winning the Laffont Competition is something I never dreamed I would do. I think I was too scared to dream that big for a long time. Fear is perhaps the largest obstacle I have had to personally overcome in my career thus far. I can’t tell you how many auditions I have blown because of fear; how many times fear has taken my voice away from me. Thanks in part to this months-long experience, I learned to believe in myself during times of uncertainty, and I know that I will carry the essence of that through the entirety of my life and career.

This was actually my first time competing in the Laffont Competition. For years, I’ve seen colleagues compete at all levels of the competition, but I personally didn’t feel ready until this year. I had just come out of Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program the previous summer with some momentum, so I figured now was a good time. My district and regional rounds were both in Chicago just a couple of hours from my house, so I got to sleep in my own bed, but I laid awake in bed all night before both events. When 8 a.m. rolled around and I needed to start getting ready, I thought I had already blown it before I even sang a note. But somehow, I was able to sing both days. I remember constantly reminding myself to believe that I could do it and not give into fear. I think I had to let go of the notion that I couldn’t sing tired and that the circumstances had to be “perfect.” With that hope and a prayer, I made it to the semifinals.

Day one in New York City was surreal. The excitement of going through the infamous Met stage door and getting a Met ID was strong. I remember feeling grateful to be there in that building where so many operatic legends made their careers. The night before the semifinal was sleepless, but at this point, I expected that and accepted it. In the morning, I headed to the Met with what I call my whole campsite (i.e. dress, makeup, shoes, curling iron, steamer, nebulizer, music binder). We each had exactly one minute for a sound check on the Met stage with our pianists.

When I first stepped onto the stage, I was confronted with just how large the Met is. We were placed way downstage, and that void in front of me felt deceptively demanding…like a bottomless cavern. I immediately knew that oversinging was going to be tempting and dangerous, so I had to be vigilant about that. When I actually sang for the semifinals, I remember I had to talk to myself in order to stay focused. It was difficult to not be overwhelmed by the weight and excitement of that stage, but I think I had spent so much time feeling similar energy the night before that I was able to pull it in.

That afternoon, we stood backstage with Priti Gandhi (Associate Director of the Laffont Competition) waiting for the announcement of the finalists. During this time, I remembered that you can only make it to the semifinals twice, and if you make it to the finals, you can’t compete in Laffont again. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I really don’t know if I can do this whole thing again if I don’t make it to the finals.” I know things could have easily gone that way if I hadn’t been able to stay focused and keep it together, but I think that the circumstances of my journey had prepared me for it. It was quite intense listening to Melissa Wegner start announcing the 10 finalists. When my region and name were called, it was an incredible relief. By some circumstance, I had serendipitously made it all the way to the end of the Laffont Competition on my first go. I still can’t believe that happened to me.

The finals week was hands down my favorite part. I not only began rehearsing for the performance of a lifetime on the Met stage, but I also started to get to know the other finalists, all of whom were exceptionally talented and kind. I will never forget the first time we sang the finals program in front of each other. I was definitely nervous afterwards because the talent was so great across the board. I remember hearing the other finalists talking about how their families were coming to NYC to see the finals, and I realized I hadn’t even thought of that. So that night, I spent a small fortune on a last-minute flight for my husband to join me in NYC, and having him there was incredibly grounding for me. When he’s around, it reminds me that I have something priceless to be proud of that has nothing to do with being an opera singer. I really think that he took any remaining edge off the last couple of days in NYC.

At last, we made it to the day of the Laffont finals. My small victory was that I got two hours of sleep the night before. Finals day was magical. I got my own dressing room with my name on it, Denyce Graves and Ryan Speedo Green were just there walking among us, and the Met hair and makeup staff were there to make us look fabulous, so I think we all probably felt like movie stars (I certainly did). As I waited in the wing to sing my first aria, I felt a full-bodied calmness and readiness to walk onto the stage again. Everything during the process had come together so beautifully up to this point, and I felt a security in myself and my mission at that moment. I was not so concerned with winning the big prize as I was with desiring to live in the moment and execute my arias fully committed.

I stepped onto the stage and sang my first aria, “O ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho. Oddly, it’s difficult to remember much from the first piece because I was so focused that I disassociated a little bit. However, I do remember that after the final note, all the air was sucked out of me by the thunder of applause. I mean, people were actually screaming! I was not prepared for that. I have never felt that sort of gratitude from an audience, and it left me speechless and moved beyond measure. My second aria was “Parto, parto” from La clemenza di Tito. I had a bit of trepidation about the final section of this aria: in rehearsals, it proved to be more difficult to execute with the complexities of the clarinet duet and tempi. I know I had some anxiety about that, but I was still on cloud nine from the first piece, so I decided to let go of the fear and trust that it would come together. And, of course, it did.

Waiting for the judges to announce the winners was a lot more pleasant during the final round because Ryan Speedo Green was singing with the Met orchestra during deliberations. In addition, I think all of us were really happy for each other and were a little relieved it was almost over. I was the last winner to be named, so that gave me a mini heart attack, but when I was called, I ran out, hugged Denyce Graves with tears in my eyes, and took my center stage bow. I felt so incredibly thankful in that moment. Thankful to the audience, to my family, to my team, and to the Laffont process. To have made it to where I was standing that day is still unbelievable to me.

All of this to say that this was a redemption story for me. At the end of it all, I really felt how Frodo and Sam probably felt after destroying the One Ring at Mordor. This experience was immensely personally challenging, but in the best ways. As a lifelong musician, I have spent so much time tortured by the terror that me and my instrument are not worthy of performing the music that means so much to me. But I know that I am enough, and whether I had won the big prize or not, I am now certain that fear cannot touch the one who bravely sings with her heart and knows that her message is true. I know that fear will continue to be my greatest enemy, but I also know that since I overcame it during such a time as the Laffont finals, I can do it again.

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