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The COC’s annual vocal competition

V. Gabrielian, J. Groote, A. Lett, M. Cairns (© Michael Cooper)

The Canadian Opera Company holds an annual gala, called Centre Stage, at which young singers compete for cash prizes and entry into the company’s Ensemble Studio. This was the sixth, held November 1. Auditions had been held in Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto; 123 singers were whittled down to eight: three sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, two tenors, and two bass-baritones. Five were from Ontario, and one each from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland. There were none from Quebec this year, which is unusual.

The restrained colour palette of both auditorium and lobby were brightened by fiery red lighting, a welcome respite from a rainy November evening. The evening opened with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide under the baton of COC music director Johannes Debus.

The jury of seven included five regular members from COC staff, headed by General Director Alexander Neef. There were two guests: tenor J. Patrick Raftery, now teaching at the University of British Columbia, and Evamaria Wieser, director of artistic administration at the Salzburg Festival.

The first prize went to tenor Matthew Cairns, who impressed with “Ah, la paterno mano” from Verdi’s Macbeth and “O souverain, ô juge, ô père” from Massesnt’s Le Cid. Mr. Cairns is from St. Catherines, Ontario, and is currently working toward his masters degree in voice performance at the University of Toronto. It is unusual to find such a developed solid spinto sound in such a young singer.

Second prize went to Toronto bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, currently working on his masters degree at the Curtis Institute. His two arias were nicely characterized Leprello’s catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, and “Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni” from Bellini’s La sonnambula which displayed the all-important legato. His voice leans toward the bass end of the bass-baritone range.

The third prize winner was mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote, currently working on her masters degree at the University of Toronto. Her first aria was a very accomplished “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and her second “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

There is a fourth prize, the Audience Choice Award, which usually goes to one of the three chosen by the jury. But this time it went to soprano Andrea Lett, whose home town is Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (also the home town of Jon Vickers). She sang Zerlina’s “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” from Don Giovanni, and later “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. She has degrees from the University of Manitoba and the University of Toronto, and will be singing the role of Zerlina for Manitoba Opera later this month. She evinces exceptional joy in singing, surely the reason for this award.

But wait, there’s more: new this year is an award from the Canadian broadcasting Corporation, the CBC Young Artist Development Prize, consisting of a studio recording and a featured interview, no doubt on one of the two programs that Ben Heppner hosts on the network. Heppner was also the host of Centre Stage, and while the jury came to their decision, he and CBC producer Denise Ball decided to choose not one but two of the evening’s singers: Matthew Cairns and Andrea Lett. It was quite the feat for Ms. Lett to gain two well-earned prizes despite not being chosen by the jury.

Going over a partial list of recent winners of the competition, it is striking that a number of winners never entered the Ensemble Studio. I suspect the reason is that many of them have other options. Others don’t complete the full term of two or three years in the ensemble. One such is Emily D’Angelo, who won the contest (and audience award) in 2015, despite performing with a broken ankle. (A real showbiz story.) After a year in the ensemble she was lured to the Lindemann Youg Artist development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, and in June of this year did well at the Montreal International Music Competition, and then more recently won first prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. (Another ensemble alumna, Rihab Chaieb, placed third.) She was this year’s guest artist at Centre Stage, singing “Una voce poco fa” from Il barbiere di Siviglia, and the Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, delivering each with marvelous aplomb.

Yet more bragging about the COC ensemble: early this year the International Opera Awards nominated 10 singers for the Young Singer award. Two COC ensemble alumni were included: Gordon Bintner (recently Eugene Onegin with the COC), and Wallis Giunta. Ms. Giunta won the prize. It is exciting to experience the emergence of such talents which is the main reason Centre Stage continues to attract an eagerly involved audience. The evening’s ticket and gala dinner sales cover the annual cost of the Ensemble Studio.

Michael Johnson



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