The voice

Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava, executive director of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, speaks to IAM about the next edition of Finland’s most prestigious voice contest.

Although the official rounds are still a few months away, the quinquennial Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition (MHISC) has attracted a record number of applications for its 2019 edition. Almost 500 singers applied to take part in the finals in Finland, with 62 selected for the competitive rounds.

What was behind the increase? “The standard of the applicants for this edition was excellent. It is also noticeable that top-flight singers clearly cover a wider front than they did five to 10 years ago. This demonstrates that an interest in opera and Western art music has spread, it reflects the speed with which these genres have been reappropriated,” says executive director Marja-Leena Pétas-Arjava.

“Our international marketing campaign was apparently quite successful; we used printed, online and social media. Our key messages seem to have resonated well with our target group, and attracted the most promising young singers in the world. We have, once again, an impressive jury of world-famous singers, good prizes and many other bonuses as well. Our reputation as one of the most valuable competitions in the world has become stronger. Some singers might have also been motivated by the fact that this opportunity does not come every other year.

“The repertoire is very demanding, which gives the applicants quite a clear understanding of the demands and the standard well in advance. Having said that, the repertoire does allow for plenty of freedom to choose pieces that suit each singer’s voice best.”

Founded by professor, singer and voice teacher Mirjam Helin (1911-2006), the aim of MHISC is to find the most talented young singers and to give them a major boost in their international careers. One such success story is that of Nadine Sierra, who won second prize for women in 2009.

Helin’s ambition was for every aspect of the competition to be first class and – more importantly – delivered within a friendly atmosphere. The prize money comes from Helin’s own pocket as she made a donation to the Finnish Cultural Foundation (FCF) to create the Mirjam and Hans Helin Fund, the profits of which are used to organise MHISC every five years.

Helin explained her manifesto to FCF in an interview in 2004: “I want the competitors to feel welcome. Their wellbeing is my first priority. During the competition, the singers and their accompanists stay in carefully selected private homes, in which they have the opportunity to rehearse. We provide their daily meals…and there is always assistance available to them at any time during the competition.”

Now carried on in her memory, the competition still keeps to these hallmarks of quality. Continues Pétas-Arjava: “The Helin spirit and experience is something we hope to offer for each contestant: the competition is financially accessible to every skilful singer: there are no admission or registration fees with online applications; travel bursaries are available; we offer free family accommodation, free lunch and a daily allowance, as well as a free public transportation card etc. More significant, is our track record of launching careers and the educational importance of a classical music event with such high standards that is delivered with professionalism with peer-to-peer support and held in a safe environment.”

What of this year’s competition? “Those 62 selected for the competitive rounds represent not only a variety of nationalities – 22 in total – but also a variety of styles. There are 28 women (two coloratura sopranos, 20 sopranos and six mezzo-sopranos) and 34 men (three countertenors, seven tenors, 20 baritones, two bass-baritones and two basses). This variety should lead to a stimulating competition, with singers taking on a wide range of repertoire.”

The tricky task of choosing the winner falls to a jury led by Jorma Silvasti. He is supported by Olaf Bär, Ben Heppner, Vesselina Kasarova, François Le Roux, Waltraud Meier, Deborah Polaski and Kiri Te Kanawa.

Explains Pétas-Arjava: “The jury must follow each competitor’s performance throughout the entire competition. After each round, the members of the jury name the singers they consider most deserve to progress – they vote independently with no discussion. After the finals, the members of the jury vote on each prize separately. Each singer also receives personal feedback from the jury after his or her last round. For many, getting such insights from a singer they admire stands them in good stead for the future.

“The jury consists only of singers because it was the wish of Mirjam Helin that the competition be kept as free as possible from conflicting interests. The competition seeks the best singer, not the most suitable singer for a particular role. The competitors are assessed by peers who have made a successful international career and can thus provide invaluable feedback and advice.”