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A singers' competition at the COC

G. Bintner, C. Burrage, A. Haji (© Chris Hutcheson)

Starting in 2011, the Canadian Opera Company made the final selection of entrants into their Ensemble Studio a public competition, with the immediate result of giving the process a higher public profile.

The Ensemble Studio was founded back in 1980, when Lotfi Mansouri was running the company, as an apprentice program for young singers, coach/accompanist/conductors, and directors. The singers assume small roles in main stage productions, plus lead roles in an annual special performance of one of the company’s productions (this season it will be La Clemenza di Tito.) There are currently 11 members who generally spend two years in the program. Among its 150 alumni are Ben Heppner, Isabel Bayrakdarian, and Joseph Kaiser.

This year auditions were held in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and New York City. Ten finalists (three sopranos, two mezzos, two tenors, and one each of baritone, bass-baritone and bass) were selected from 146 applicants. The culminating event, held November 29 in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (part of the multi-level lobby space of the Four Seasons Centre) was adjudicated by a five-member panel headed by General Director Alexander Neef and including Ensemble Studio head Liz Upchurch.

Each singer submitted a list of five arias. Each sang one of his or her choice, then the panel requested a second one.

The mistress of ceremonies was Sandra Horst, the COC’s esteemed chorus director and also an alumna of the studio. The accompanists were company coaches Rachel Andrist and Steven Philcox.

What we heard was a wonderful array of 20 arias by 12 composers (Handel to Stravinsky). The panel selected three winners while the audience voted for their favourite as well.

First prize plus the audience choice award went to Gordon Bintner, a bass-baritone from Regina, Saskatchewan, currently studying at McGill University. He gave vivid, characterful performances of “Non più andrai” from Le Nozze di Figaro and “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto” from Handel’s Rinaldo. Mr. Neef remarked that he looks forward to a “terrifying” Don Giovanni from Mr. Bintner.

Second price went to lyric tenor Andrew Haji from London, Ontario, currently studying at the University of Toronto. He has a startlingly attractive, Italianate voice - he sang “Quanto è bella” from L’elisir d’amore and then the challenging "Un’aura amorosa" from Cosi fan tutte.

Third prize went to mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage. She is from Woodstock, Ontario and has studied at both the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. She gave us an assured “Vois sous l’archet fremissant” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann and a glowing Composer’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos.

The vocal standard was impressive. There could well have been more than three finalists.

The only possible criticism of the event was that it is in a venue too small for the amount of public interest it attracts. One of the larger rehearsal spaces at the company’s production centre would probably be more commodious - but one must admit that any event in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre becomes a festive, capital “E” Event. And one must keep in mind that interested members of the public will have opportunities to hear the young singers as part of the series of more than 90 free concerts held each season in the amphitheatre.

On closing the evening, Mr. Neef promised another competition next November. Another successful innovation from the COC.

Michael Johnson



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