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Singing beauty
In its 20th year, the American Traditions Competition profiles vocal excellence

The American Traditions Competition is not: An all–opera forum, delightful for fans of the genre but not terribly interesting to those who crave a little variety; nor is it American Idol, with its attendant shrieking and strutting.

The ATC is a love letter to that most mellifluous of musical instruments, the human voice.

For 20 years, American Traditions has delivered to Savannah a vibrant cross–section of vocalists from around the country, who perform —in front of a panel of industry judges — jazz, gospel, blues, the American Songbook and yes, opera. They compete for cash prizes, including the $12,000 gold medal award, appreciation and recognition.

And the audience, invited to attend all four nights of competition, is always the biggest winner.

The ATC separated from the Savannah Music Festival in 2011 and has been rolling along independently, and quite successfully, ever since.

Following the resignation last April of artistic director Joel Martin, the board brought in tenor Vale Rideout as its 2013 artistic consultant.

Besides his full slate of singing and recording engagements with many of the world’s top symphonies and opera companies, the Colorado native is a past winner of the American Traditions Competition, taking home the gold in 2006 for a program that included “Come Up From the Fields, Father” (Walt Whitman set to music by Kurt Weill), “Maria” (from West Side Story) and “Bargaining” (Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim).

The 2013 judges are baritone Rod Gilfry, an assistant professor of voice at the University of Southern California; veteran actress/singer Anita Gillette (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, among many, many others); jazz composer and musician Bob Dorough (co–composer with Savannah’s Ben Tucker of the song “Comin’ Home Baby,” he also wrote the songs for Schoolhouse Rock); and composer Don Davis (TV’s Beauty and the Beast).

The ATC quarterfinals, semi–finals and judges’ concert take place at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, while the really big show — the 2013 finals and awards presentation — happens at the Lucas Theatre.

We spoke with artistic consultant Rideout this week.

You took the gold here in 2006. What did it do for you?

Vale Rideout: It helped in a number of ways. The gold medal is such a great prize for any singer, in any competition ... and I’ve taken part in a quite a few competitions. The first thing, and most immediate, was finances. It helped so immensely in my personal life, in that way.

Does it look good on your resume?

Vale Rideout: It does, it does. This competition is gaining prominence more and more, and so it does. And that’s our goal, to elevate this competition to a status that’s like the Richard Tucker Competition, or the Gorge London Competition.

It also helped me in the area of confidence and performing. To advance in three rounds of competitions against performers who display such varied talents was a real confidence–booster, because I was competing against some fantastically talented people in different styles. That was a challenge that I hadn’t experienced in opera before, because usually you’re competing against opera singers.

While it was freeing in a way — you knew you had to give your best, because a jazz singer might win — it was also scary because you weren’t sure how you would fare as an opera singer compared to a blues singer or something.

Is it a good thing, to make sure it’s stylistically varied?

Vale Rideout: I think that in the world of opera, young singers have many more opportunities to compete, win prize money and acclaim, than other genres. And I think the only reason for that is it’s a more organized path to a professional career. Because there are patrons along the way who want to help the younger singers. The world of opera is very much a part of patronage — wealthy people provide opera companies and symphonies with much money to actually keep running.

Whereas in, say, music theater, it’s a profit–based business. So there aren’t really those roots that will help nurture a young singer on their own. They have to really fend for themselves, and there also aren’t these competitions as often. And it’s much worse for blues singers, for country singers, for folksingers. Gospel singers do have a bit of patronage in the churches, but it’s a little bit different.

I’m learning about all of those differences, because I need to try to tap into those communities, to bring them to the ATC.

What’s the procedure for getting singers signed up for the ATC? I mean, obviously you advertise in some way, and they audition ... How did you reach them?

Vale Rideout: I used whatever connections I had. I came from music theater originally, and then switched to opera, so I tried to use every avenue that I have in those two worlds. Then I also tapped into academia, and tried to send every professor that I knew, or had heard of, information and applications for this year’s competition. So that they could tell students.

I also tried to send it to prominent churches that have renowned music and choral programs, because that’s often where we’re going to get some very talented singers that we might not reach otherwise.

This competition is original because it does celebrate variety in American music. And that is something that I have been passionate about ever since I heard about it.

What was your journey from musical theater to opera?

Vale Rideout: Having grown up in a family of bluegrass and folk music, in addition to classical, I just appreciated music in general. I had always wanted to maybe be on Broadway, and I moved to New York for that goal. But I realized after seven years being in that business that the emphasis of that career is not as much on the talent as it is on the type. The look, how tall you are, what color hair, all that stuff. For me, it was frustrating that my acting and singing weren’t the most valuable asset in the audition room.

So I went into opera and just stayed there because it has so far been proven that they do care much more about what comes out of your mouth, and how you act it, than whether your hair is blond or brunette.

American Traditions Competition

At Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 122 Bull Street

Quarterfinals: At 5 and 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 15 and 16

Tickets: $35 (for 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. sessions together, either day)

Semi–finals: At 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17

Tickets: $50

 Judges’ Concert: At 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18

Tickets: $35

Finals: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

Tickets: $50, $63

Tickets and info: americantraditionscompetition.comThe American