Dallas — Since the arrival of Keith Cerny as General Director and CEO, The Dallas Opera is quietly making a big noise in the opera world. The most recent example is the transformation of the Opera Guild’s annual vocal competition from regional to national and from emerging artists to young singers at the threshold of international careers. The prize money is significant and the final round is accompanied with the Dallas Opera Orchestra in the pit and Music Director Emmanuel Villaume on the podium. The results surely exceeded expectations for this newly re-envisioned competition.
Out of hundreds of applications, 18 singers came to Dallas to compete (there were two withdrawals) in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday evening, six finalists sang two arias each with the orchestra on the stage of the Winspear Opera House. There was a decent sized crowd—the orchestra level was about two-thirds full—and it was a distinguished audience with many local musicians and some celebrities in attendance.
Technical perfection is a given—just as in similar competitions such as the Van Cliburn International Pianist Competition. All of the singing was on a very high level, as you would expect. Certainly, the participants all spent endless hours woodshedding already familiar arias with voice teachers and coaches, both music and language, in order to prepare. The performances were highly polished, full of detail and delivered with confidence.
Since arias are theater pieces, all of the finalists also brought a greater or lesser degree of drama to their interpretations and all of them kept their histrionics within the bounds of a concert performance. This is a fine line to walk and they all succeeded with some at the minimal level and others treading closer to the outer limit. The lower voices took the day with top awards going to a baritone and two mezzo-soprani. Two other sopranos made the finals but didn’t place. None of the three tenors in the running made the final round.
The jury was chaired by Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of Juilliard's Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and Executive Director for the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program of the Metropolitan Opera. The other jury members were: Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera; Emmanuel Villaume, Music Director, The Dallas Opera; Ian Derrer, Artistic Administrator, The Dallas Opera; Jonathan Friend, Artistic Administrator, The Metropolitan Opera; Gregory Henkel, Director of Artistic and Music Planning, San Francisco Opera; Andreas Melinat, Director of Artistic Administration, Lyric Opera of Chicago; and Joshua Winograde, Senior Director of Artistic Planning, Los Angeles Opera. The competition honored patrons Enika and Richard Schulze.
Let’s start with the singers that did not place.
Soprano Elizabeth Sutphen has a voice that we associate with specialists in the coloratura repertoire. It is a light and highly focused voice with great flexibility and range. Her version of “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto was performed with care and accuracy and her trill is spectacular. She probably has a lot more voice than she presented because she doesn’t open her mouth enough to let it out.
Baritone John Brancy opened with an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo that felt long. His passagework was clean but faded in the lower parts of his range. His second selection, “Pierrot’s tanzlied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt was considerably better. However, its introspective nature didn’t allow it to overcome our earlier impression.
Soprano Jungwon Choi has a lovely instrument perfectly suited to the lyric soprano repertoire. She stuck to this category with both of her selections. She opened with Liu’s first act aria from Puccini’s Turandot and followed that up with the heartbreaking “Adieu, notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon. Both were ravishing; truly gorgeous. However, choosing a less introspective selection, with a little fire by way of contrast, might have improved her odds.
Third place ($2,500) went to mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, who will start at the Metropolitan Opera as a cover artist this fall. Mesko gave an excellent rendition of an aria from Handel’s Xerxes. She has a genuine mezzo sound and tossed off the coloratura work with style, using it to express the words rather than mere displays of technical prowess. She lacks a distinctive trill but the voice itself is clear and even, from top to bottom (as she demonstrated in a cadenza). Her second selection, an aria from Les Troyens by Berlioz, also displayed a sure technique and polished vocalism.
First and second place were a toss-up for most of us in attendance but we all knew it would come down to one or t’other.
Second place ($5,000) went to mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, who simply knocked our socks off in both of her appearances. Little wonder she also took the People’s Choice Award. She opened with an aria from the infrequently performed Gounod opera Sapho, which she followed up with a dynamite performance of The Composer’s aria from the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. She has an incendiary voice of remarkable depth and power, yet one that defies easy categorization. The two selections heard in the final round show her versatility, as did her other listed selections—with roles as diverse as Bizet’s Carmen, Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner and the big aria from Donizetti’s Giovanna Seymour.
Baritone Anthony Clark Evans, who took First Place ($10,000), was working as a car sales representative when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2012. He has a huge voice, well suited to Wagner as his first selection ably demonstrated (“O du, mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser). He is equally at home in other repertoire, as he demonstrated with the remainder of his offered arias by Bizet, Mozart and even Richard Rodgers.
It is safe to surmise that it was this final selection that pushed him to the top of the list. He sang the prologue to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a tour de force for any baritone. It requires a singing actor to pull it off and a baritone with solid high notes that reach into the tenor territory. But what made it such a good selection is how well the dramatic situation fit this particular occasion. Tonio sings this at the beginning of the opera and in front to the curtain. It is addressed to the audience and attempts to prepare them for what is to come. Thus, Evans could play the aria exactly as he would in a full modern dress production, without stretching the limit of appropriate acting in a concert performance.
All of the finalists showed the same high level of musicianship of those that come here for the Cliburn piano competition every four years (which is considerable). It won’t take long for the Dallas Opera’s vocal competition to situate itself at the top of the list of such events and become an important gold star on any young artist’s résumé.
By the way, the previously Texas-restricted competitions have launched some important careers. A partial list includes: Clifton Forbis, Mary Dunleavy, Latonia Moore, Jesus Garcia, Scott Scully, Jennifer Black, Weston Hurt, Takesha Meshé Kizart, Steven Labrie, Valerie Vinzant, Juan José Deleon, and John Holiday, Jr.
Soapbox moment: It would be of great value for the TDO competition to require an aria by an American composer. Most of the finalists included something in English by a contemporary composer (not all American), which is fantastic. However, one did not which implies that this was not required but something that all of the others felt important. This addition would underscore TDO’ fierce dedication to new operas, which has a three world premieres this year. And, as long as you are doing it, why not give a spiff to American composers?
Most importantly, it would demonstrate the singer’s ability to deal with contemporary music and facility in English diction.
Even better, as long as we are dreaming, would be to require an aria from an unperformed opera—or one that is rare enough that a recording is unavailable (even on YouTube). TDO could supply them with the score a few weeks ahead of the competition, a practice that would also demonstrate how quickly they could assimilate something new that cannot be learned from a recording. The Cliburn does this by commissioning a new piece for each competition and delivering it shortly before the contestants arrive, which is unrealistic in the opera world. (Maybe a concert aria?)
TDO is perfectly situated to institute this with one to the world’s leading proponents of new opera on the musical staff, Assistant Conductor Nicole Paiement.
Any singer with an eye on a major career must have these skills in today’s market. The era of star singers with glorious voices and thrilling high notes who are unable to read music and require every note pounded into their (thick) skull, is (fortunately) long over. Well, at least over.
Being judged the best performer on five arias, selected by the singer, is an amazing distinction worthy of a major career boost, considering the incredibly high level of the contestants. However, in this writer/composer’s admittedly biased opinion, a first place prize in a distinguished competition should say more.
I’m just sayin’.