The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Can the annual Handel Aria Competition be improved? Here are two modest proposals from a fan. What do you think? | June 13, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a guest posting by George Savage, a blog follower who is a self-described musical amateur. In his youth he sang in choirs and had a bit solo part of Morales in his college production of Bizet’s Carmen. Then, a long musical hiatus until his 60th birthday celebration, when he sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” black hat in hand, knees on floor.

Most of his adult life was spent teaching literature and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, specializing in the American Renaissance. To the extent he has stayed connected to the world of music, it is through his daughter Kelly Savage, who has a D.M.A in harpsichord from Stony Brook University and now teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

By George Savage

As my bio indicates, I am a musical amateur, meaning simply that I am a lover (French amateur) of music. For the past three years, I have had this love rekindled through the annual Handel Aria Competition in Madison, Wisconsin.

The vocal quality has consistently been high — especially this year! — and it is fun to vote for the Audience Favorite, even when the judges disagree with your assessment.

(Editor’s note: This year the Audience Favorite was mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, below top, while the three judges awarded First Prize to soprano Suzanne Karpov, below bottom. Here is a link to story about all the winners:

My heartfelt congratulations go to Dean and Carol “Orange” Schroeder (below) for establishing this annual competition in 2013 and for the many supporters who have made this competition a success.

I have two modest proposals, though, for improvement, one minor and one major.

A minor proposal: Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of opera — and I know that some people reading this have that knowledge — you will not know the context of the arias.

I propose that the program notes contain a brief context for each of the arias. Alternatively, the singers – below are the seven finalists this year — could introduce their songs with a similar brief context.

A major proposal: As I listened this year to Handel piece after Handel piece after Handel piece, I wondered: “Could there be some variation?”

I started to think of other festivals that started with a single-artist focus but then gradually expanded, such as the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, or, closer to home, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Both summer theater venues began with a single focus – Shaw and Shakespeare — but then evolved while at the same time staying true to their precipitating muse.

There is still lots of Shaw at the Shaw festival and lots of Shakespeare at APT. The same is true of the Carmel Bach Festival, which started with Bach but now has expanded to include many other forms of classical music. The same holds true for the famous Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City, which continues to expand its repertoire beyond Mozart.

In that spirit, I wonder if the singers at the Handel Competition, back up by the period-instrument Madison Bach Musicians, could in future events sing two selections — the first an aria by Handel and the second a non-Handel Baroque aria of the singer’s choice.

I think many singers would welcome the expanded repertoire and the audience would appreciate the added variety. The judging would be murkier, but it would be a good kind of murky.

I hope these proposals will engender a discussion: Should the competition be tweaked, or should it stay the same?

Your thoughts on these two proposals would be appreciated as well as other suggestions of your own.


  1. I have a different thought for tweaking the Handel Aria Competition.

    Why not expand it to the Handel Competition, or a Night with Handel and not confine it solely to arias. Handel wrote lots of lovely music: this might also make the concert more diverse.

    I do think the spotlight should remain on Handel.


    Comment by fflambeau — June 14, 2018 @ 1:19 am

  2. George, as a fellow musical amateur, I’m happy that this music has touched your heart as it has mine. And everyone, we are happy to see such interest, and welcome your suggestions.

    Over the years, we have sought to improve the experience for the audience in a variety of possible ways. Certainly, providing context for each aria is a good idea, one that we will revisit, for the program. But to have each singer speak the context for each aria (14 in total)? There has been a feeling that the evening is long enough as is…:)

    Branching out is an intriguing idea, and we would welcome someone coming up with a correlating “Baroque Opera Competition” to be held during the same weekend. For the foreseeable future, we will remain dedicated to Handel, and hope to hear more of his dozens of lesser known arias.

    This year we had 113 applications from 29 states and 5 countries…including 8 counter tenors, 14 tenors, and 13 bass baritones. The finalists are chosen strictly on merit, which unfortunately precluded all the men. We hope this was just an anomaly, and we will continue to solicit all young singers, 18 – 35, in every available channel.

    In addition, we are initiating a program to encourage high school aged singers to explore Handel’s arias, and welcome suggestions on how to go about it.

    Looking forward to seeing you at the seventh annual Handel Aria Competition on June 7, 2019!

    Dean and Orange Schroeder


    Comment by handelaria — June 13, 2018 @ 9:54 am

    • First off, thanks Dean and Orange for sponsoring this event. You make many fine points in your post.

      I hope you keep the focus on Handel. He’s worth it.

      I do think you should try to have some sort of balance gender-wise. Not numerically, perhaps, not a quota, but at least both should be represented. I find it hard to believe that only women could make the cut this year musically. Having just one gender on the program does limit the possibilities for Handel.

      Upon further reflection, I also agree with your point on the introductions or context: they could end up being very wordy. Maybe the context idea should be scrapped altogether: bring your own context! Most people attending probably have some idea of the context anyway.


      Comment by fflambeau — June 13, 2018 @ 11:53 pm

  3. The competition keeps being scheduled at the same time as a Bach Dancing and Dynamite concert. I would love to go to both events, as would many others, but we’re forced to choose one or the other. Please schedule the Handel competition on Saturday afternoon or on Sunday so fans can go to both.


    Comment by Elizabeth Conklin — June 13, 2018 @ 7:03 am

    • Any other complaints? Maybe the organizers should serve popcorn and wine?

      Madison is growing; scheduling “conflicts” are somewhat normal and mean a richness of offerings.

      Get used to it.


      Comment by fflambeau — June 13, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

  4. I agree with your first suggestion (with the singers providing context: otherwise, it raises programming costs for printing) but not the second. Keep the focus on Handel.

    Mostly Mozart is a bad example to use because its name clearly indicates that other composers will be played.

    Plus, there’s enough variety in Handel that he should himself get the spotlight. For other early composers, there’s always the Early Music Festival,, WPR and You Tube.

    As for Haydn, who wouldn’t want to hear someone else? The same if not true of Handel.


    Comment by fflambeau — June 13, 2018 @ 6:05 am

    • Perhaps I should add that neither of the suggestions raised in the post (which otherwise is well-written and informative) deals with perhaps the greatest flaw of the past program as noted by several reviewers and attendees: no male voices.

      Maybe it would be simply enough for the organizers to urge this and perhaps this year’s result was just the result of “placement” of notices announcing the competition (so as the pool of females was much larger). Or perhaps this year was just a fluke? Who knows? Has this issue been dealt with by other, similar competitions, and if so, how so? I’m afraid I have more questions than answers.

      I think that this is the real issue that needs to be addressed.


      Comment by fflambeau — June 13, 2018 @ 6:20 am

  5. Dear George, it was my pleasure years ago to teach your wonderful daughter in both my Early Music Ensemble at the UW and in music history courses. You make a good point. Why not have some variety? On the other hand, Handel often incorporated other composers’ music into his own works, so one is often hearing works in Handel that he didn’t actual compose to varying degrees (ranging from borrowing a theme to wholesale copying). In that sense there is already music by other composers; it’s just not acknowledged.


    Comment by Jeanne Swack — June 13, 2018 @ 2:08 am

  6. Agree with both suggestions. Attended Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria and heard more than Haydn.


    Comment by Terry Peterson — June 13, 2018 @ 12:50 am

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