Dallas — Competitions for young musicians abound these days; enough to fill a number of books. Some particularly talented young musicians spend years on the competition circuit and their biographies list a multitude of prizes. You could say that the competition among competition for the Most Prestigious title is fierce. In an effort to join the top ranks, The Dallas Opera recently upgraded their annual Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition by the addition of the orchestra, conducted by TDO’s dynamic Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, for the final round. The finals were held in the Winspear Opera House on Sunday, April 30.
Here is a list of the finalists and what they sang. Each one presented one aria and then the rotation started over with each singing a different selection.
Raehann Bryce-Davis, mezzo-soprano, was up first. Wearing an elegant floor length gown, she sang “O mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s La Favorita. She has a true mezzo sound with a baritone-sounding chest voice, which she tended to push. This made the chest notes sound like another voice. The sound is excellent and well-placed, enabling her to project to the back of the hall, even though her voice is dark. She was a little over dramatic for a Bel Canto aria, making it sound more like Verdi. Still, a fine performance. Her second aria, "Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse" from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns, was much better. Her French was excellent and understandable. The problem with the forced chest voice was still evident, but she used it more judiciously.
Xiaomeng Zhang, in a tux accented with a white pocket square, was next. He is a baritone with a lovely voice, but it is a little withheld, mostly because he doesn’t open his mouth all the way. He sang "Mab, la Reine des Mensonges" from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod. This is an aria that requires both a sense of humor and the ability to spin a lyric line. Zhang certainly produced the lyric line part but fell short when it came to the tongue-in-cheek delivery of this bizarre tale of Mab, the queen of liars and general troublemaker. His French was acceptable and, in spite of the brisk tempo, mostly understandable. His second selection, "O du, mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser by Wagner, was quite nicely done. However, it was on the slow side, making it hard to follow in phrases.
Next, we heard Samantha Hankey, a fine mezzo-soprano, sing “Parto, parto" from La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart. She was elegantly decked out in a blue gown that bared her arms, but it was perfectly within bounds for a concert appearance. Her voice is fairly even throughout the full range, including her chest voice, but the vibrato is on the fluttery side. Her concept of Mozartian style was different that we usually hear, but she came alive in the cabaletta. Her Italian suffered from a common complaint about American singers: she diphthonged the ending vowels, which never occurs in Italian. But we hear this often, even in the big houses (“o” is “oh,” never “ou”). Her second selection was “D'amour l'ardente flamme" from La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz. This turned out to be an excellent piece for her. Maestro Villaume gave her the perfect setup with the fairly long introduction, but she started a little faster. This is perfectly acceptable if the singer has paced the aria at that tempo. She was always in character, even in the tutti passages. At the end, she slowly hugged herself for comfort—a very nice touch.
Soprano Laura Wilde entered the stage clad in a dark blue gown, and exhibiting the serene elegance required by her first selection, "Das war sehr gut, Mandryka" from Arabella by R. Strauss. This is the last opera by the highly successful team of the composer and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who died before the music was competed). The pair intended Arabella to be a return to the style of Rosenkavalier. Wilde gave the aria a touching performance with gorgeous pianissimo notes that she easily floated. Her intonation was noticeably excellent, especially when harmonies under a held note changed and she had to slightly adjust the pitch to keep it in tune. This is rarely done with such style. That, plus her rapid vibrato, reminded me of the great Strauss singer, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. Her second selection, "Einsam in trüben Tagen" (“Elsa’s dream”) from Wagner’s Lohengrin was equally fine. Like her character should be, she started out tentatively and unsure of herself. After all, she is telling about her vision of a magical knight that will come to defend her and the charge of being mentally dazed. When appropriate, she added some girlish excitement and, finally, a mature woman in love with a phantom. Wilde was most impressive and is ready for a major career as a dramatic soprano (a rarity these days).
Baritone Kihun Yoon updated the traditional tux with a scoop-cut vest that set him apart without being showy. He gave a wonderful rendition of "Era uguale la voce?...Si corre dal notaio" from Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. This is a character piece, but one that still requires some strenuous singing. He created the character without exceeding the bounds of a concert performance. His second selection, Bizet’s "Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre" (the famous toreador aria) from Carmen by was not quite as successful. While vocally he gave it a full-bodied performance, he lacked the conceited “I am magnificent, swoon at my magnificence” attitude of the vain toreador.
The final performer was soprano Mane Galoyan, wearing a royal blue, off-one-shoulder gown. This is a style that comes and goes, so something more universal might have been a better choice. She sang “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle" (the gavotte) from Manon by Massenet. She sported a fluttery vibrato combined with some gorgeous pianissimo high notes. In this aria, Manon is showing off to the assembled town folk but Galoyan lacked the restrained flirty delivery required by her situation. Further, the very highest notes sounded squeezed. Her second selection was "È strano…Sempre libera" which ends the first act of Verdi’s La traviata. This is one of opera’s most challenging arias, not only because of the coloratura work, but also because of the constant change of moods. One of the most noticeable aspects of this performance was the skillful handling of the orchestral interjections in the first section’s recitativo accompagnato. Villaume is a master of this very difficult conducting skill: to use the passage, usually short, to transition from what the singer just said to the next thought. Few, if any, do this more skillfully than Villaume. As to her Violetta, the cadenzi that pepper this aria were excellently sung, but unexpressive. They are not mere virtuoso riffs to show off technique. They each have their own character and express some aspect of the text. This happened somewhat in the cabaletta but needed to be much more expressive of the text and situation. She didn’t take the optional high note at the end of the Verdi, as is usually done, but that was far better than going for it and missing or letting out a screech. However, overall, her beautifully controlled pianissimo and limpid high notes, impeccable intonation and clean coloratura work reminded me of the young Anna Moffo.
The winners were announced later that evening.
- The $10,000 Grand Prize, presented by 2017 Vocal Competition Co-Chairs Patsy and Bob Brooks, was awarded to mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, currently attending The Juilliard School.
- The $5,000 Second Prize, presented by incoming Guild Presidents Jan and James Clay, went to soprano Laura Wilde.
- The Third Prize of $2,500, presented by this year’s honoree, Dr. Susan Fleming, went to soprano Mane Galoyan.
- The $1,000 “People’s Choice Award,” presented by Katherine and Michael Phillips, went to baritone Kihun Yoon.
Judging a competition like this one, with an overload of fine singers, is always a challenge. Ask four people and you very well might get four different choices. I would have given the first prize, rather than second, to Laura Wilde. She was exquisite and ready for the big time. Also, I am not surprised that Kihun Yoon won the People’s Choice Award. His colorful rendition of Gianni Schicchi was delightful. However, Mane Galoyan deserved a prize, and so did Kihun Yoon. But all I can say is that I am glad that it wasn’t up to me to choose between such distinguished young artists.