Last night saw the second annual Centre Stage at the COC. It’s described as the “Ensemble Studio competition gala”, which is pretty much what it has become. It’s a dressy occasion and busier this year than last. Bussing in the claque from the University of Toronto upped both the noise level and the “beautiful young people” content. The competition itself is fairly conventional in that all the singers get to sing two arias of their choice. What’s a little different is that the accompaniment is the full COC Orchestra and as well as the jury prizes there’s an audience choice award facilitated by some neat electronics. Then of course there’s always the issue of a place in next year’s Ensemble Studio.
There were seven finalists. First up was mezzo Michelle Siemens with an aria from Roberto Devereux and Voi che sapete. She has a genuine dark, full mezzo which made both my partner and I sit up. Maybe she wasn’t technically perfect but here was a voice one could imagine singing grand opera on a big stage. Also, the Mozart seemed an odd choice. Something that showed the voice to more advantage might have served her better. We would both have had her in the top three.
The next two singers; bass-baritone Nathan Keoughan and mezzo Zoe Band were both pretty good examples of what universities and conservatories are turning out. They were both thoroughly competent, technically spot on but, ultimately a bit light and without that special something that makes one jump. Kudos to Ms. Band though for singing the only 20th century piece of the night (Must the winter come so soon? from Barber’s Vanessa).
Fourth up was tenor Charles Sy. If anybody was running a book he would have been the clear frontrunner pre-performance and the claque was in full cry. He didn’t disappoint. He sang a limpidly beautiful Dies Bildnes and an equally lovely Una furtiva lagrime. Safe choices perhaps but very well done. He went on to win first prize and the Audience Choice prize and I think deservedly so. The voice will need to grow if he’s to succeed professionally but the foundation is there.
Baritone Dmitri Katotakis, also with heavy claque backing, was next up with selections from Le nozze di Figaro and Romêo et Juliette. It’s a pleasant voice, if a little dry, but I felt the acting, which was excellent, was rather carrying it. The judges diagreed and he emerged as second place winner.
Next was another tenor, Aaron Sheppard, with Vainement mon bien aimée from Le Roi d’Ys and Un aura amorosa. This was good stuff. The voice isn’t as sensual as Sy but there’s an extra hint of strength and steel that promises well. I had him third on my card and the judges agreed.
The final singer was the sole soprano, Eliza Johnson. She offered up Ilia’s aria Padre, germani, addio from Idomeneo and Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette. I really wasn’t sure what to make of her. Her vibrato seemed a bit pronounced for a singer in this rep but nothing terribly wrong. I just didn’t much like the voice. And that’s entirely subjective.
So Sy, Katotakis and Sheppard took the prizes which in some ways is convenient and some ways not so much. If I’ve got my dates right two members of the Ensemble Studio are scheduled to graduate this year; tenor Owen McAusland and baritone Clarence Frazier so obvious replacements are to be had. One wonders though about Aaron Sheppard. Even without Owen, the Ensemble Studio already has two tenors. Will they really up that to four?
So, competition aside, how was it? The snacks were excellent though the line up was of Don Valley Parkway proportions. Best strategy was to dive in fast and early! The wine was pretty decent too. Ben Heppner was a genial MC. And the special guest was Adrienne Pieczonka! We got some Italian stuff then, yea!, we got some Strauss. The stage design and lighting was rather impressive too.
Last thoughts… What are the judges, and ultimately the COC, looking for in young singers? It seems like they want well schooled, technically excellent and versatile voices that can easily be cast in mainstream rep. I wonder whether, in a world where universities and conservatories are turning those out in industrial quantities, one perhaps ought to be more on the look out for the voice that will make heads turn. Maybe that would encourage singers to offer up more than the 20 or so arias (predominantly Handel, Mozart, Gounod, Rossini, Donizetti and a few “chestnuts”) that seem to dominate all these competitions. I want to hear a tenor come out and sing Now the Great Bear and Pleiades. Or something.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper.