Competitions have always been a path to stardom in the classical music. The piano world is holding its collective breath for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which will take place in Fort Worth this spring. But when it comes to opera, the competition put on by the Dallas Opera Guild every year has a history of picking future stars. So it is not much of a surprise that opera fans turned out on March 23 to hear the young singers take the stage, all vying for vocal glory—not to mention the $25,000 and prizes.
“Previous winners have built upon the encouragement and financial support they received to earn spots in prestigious young artists’ programs and advance in their studies at leading vocal institutes,” explained Vocal Competition Chair Sharon Bird Stupp. “Many who received early recognition here have gone on to stellar international careers, award-winning roles on Broadway, and prestigious debuts and teaching positions.”
For example, Latonia Moore, who won in 1998, recently made a triumphant debut at the Metropolitan Opera as a last minute replacement in the broadcast performance of Verdi’s Aida. She reprised that role in Dallas shortly thereafter to rapturous acclaim.
Starting at 11:30 a.m. in the Winspear opera House, the semi-final round ran in the morning and afternoon. We heard 19 semi-finalists, from ages 23 to 30. The difficult job of picking a winner fell to the 2013 Distinguished Panel of Judges: Laura Canning, Director of Houston Grand Opera Studio (a last-minute replacement); Sheri Greenawald of Opera Center Director of the San Francisco Opera (and a fine singer); Lenore Rosenberg, Associate Artistic Administrator, Metropolitan Opera; and Brad Woolbright, Director of Artistic Administration, Santa Fe Opera.
The Dallas Opera’s Artistic Director. Jonathan Pell, who also acts as artistic advisor to this eagerly anticipated annual competition was also a judge and acted as the chair of the judges group.
“Everyone views the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition as a tremendous opportunity for gifted young opera singers with Texas ties,” Pell said. “However, the fact is, this is just as significant an opportunity for those of us in the field to gauge the next generation of singing talent, as it is a chance for these young artists to shine.”
First, a general observation: What was so striking about all of the singers was the universally high level of musicianship and vocal technique. While some still need a few years on them to have the voice settled, there wasn’t a vocal problem, or even a tic, to be found. Languages were impeccable, even Russian, and all showed a complete understanding of every word they sang, Not only that, but the newly born era of trim and physically fit opera singers was on full display: all of the semifinalists could just as easily grace the pages of a fashion magazine as an opera stage.
So, the big question of the day was how could the judges possibly be able to decide between such a collection of fine singers, brimming with talent?
Well, as it turned out, the winner was obvious from the first notes of his amazing bass voice. The 28-year-old Nicholas Masters easily took first place, but more importantly, he took the $1,500 People’s Choice Award, which was underwritten this year by Neil D. Oxford (in memory of Francine Burrows Werbin), who made the presentation. The Bessylee Penland First Place Award gave him a whopping $10,000 and was presented by this year’s honorees, Katherine and Michael Phillips.
When judges and the audience agree, you know that the winner was something special.
Masters opened with the little unknown cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, sung in Russian, and finished off with “La Calunnia” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. The New York City native continued to stun later that evening in the final rounds with “Si, vi sarà…Deh! ti ferma” from Rossini’s Semiramide. His second selection (chosen by the judges) was a very funny performance of “Bottom’s Dream” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, he showed his ability at characterization and his command of physical comedy. He was greatly aided by pianist Julian Reed.
Masters is in the Houston Grand Opera Studio and received his Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal. He did his graduate work at Yale University School of Music and also at Philadelphia’s justly famous Academy of Vocal Arts.
One other singer stood out in the preliminary round: 26-year-old soprano Audra Methvin, who took the Third Place Award. Now living in Levelland, Texas, Methvin is a recent graduate of Eastern New Mexico University and a Studio Artist (2010-2011) at Central City Opera in Colorado. This writer was a little disappointed that she didn’t take second place. However, any prize is an honor in a field like this one, and the $5,000 cash prize, presented by longtime supporter Dr. Susan Fleming, can be helpful for a struggling young singer.
Her version of the quiet and heartbreaking “Adieu, notre petite table” from Massenet’s Manon left us hesitant to break the spell with applause. She gave a slightly restrained version of “Klänge der Heimat,” Rosalinda’s Czárdás from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, and that may have hurt her. This is a silly and over-the-top piece and she was way too serious about it.
In the semi-final round, she took on “Senza mamma” from Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Unfortunately, pianist Jason Smith nearly strangled her as he was always just behind her and got slower and slower as the aria progressed. Somehow, she managed to keep her voice gorgeous and floating to the end, which was an amazing demonstration of breath and vocal control. However, she was unable to give the aria the required urgency in the middle section.
The award for Second Place, and $7,000, went to 23-year-old bass-baritone Matthew Stump, a graduate of Luther College in Iowa, now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of North Texas College of Music under the direction of Dr. Stephen F. Austin. He is a four-time NATS competition winner (National Association of Teachers of Singing), Brudos Opera Prize winner and Winspear Scholar.
In the finals, with Julian Reed at the piano, he impressed with “Let Things Be Like They Always Was” from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. He also charmed with as a debonair devil with “Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Gounod’s Faust. In the semi-finals round, he gave a lackluster performance of the catalogue aria (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo”) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but all was forgiven with his touching delivery of “Vecchia zimarra” from Puccini’s La bohème. The prize was presented to Mr. Stump by Dallas Opera Guild Presidents Enika and Richard Schulze.
The remaining seven 2013 finalists were honored with $200 grants. They were:
- Dee Donasco, age 30, soprano
- Steven Eddy, age 27, baritone
- Calvin Griffin, age 23, bass-baritone
- Amanda Kingston, age 29, soprano
- Kristen Lassiter, age 28, soprano
- Samuel Schultz, age 26, baritone
- Meghan Tarkington, age 27, soprano
The other semi-finalists were:
- Robert Cardwell, age 28, baritone
- Stephen Carroll, age 25, tenor
- Sergio Cepeda, age 25, tenor
- Nereida García, age 30, soprano
- Emily Caroline Hagens, age 22, soprano
- Jeawook Lee, age 29, tenor
- Nan Qin, age 26, bass-baritone
- Hannah Rigg, age 24, soprano
- Claire Shackleton, age 27, mezzo-soprano
The event honored Katherine and Michael Phillips, who have been actively involved with numerous civic and arts organizations including The Dallas Opera, The Dallas Opera Guild and The Dallas Opera Women’s Board for many seasons. Mr. Phillips also serves on The Dallas Opera Board.
“This year as the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition Chair has been the most rewarding, exhilarating volunteer position I have ever held,” said Sharon Bird Stupp. “I have gained such respect for these talented, dedicated young singers.”
◊ Here is video of Nicholas Master's performing "Bottom's Dream," from his website: