Cincinnati Conservatory Scholarship Competition
Falstaff by CCM (Courtesy of CCM Archive)
Twenty-five young artists competed for more than $200,000 in tuition grants and cash awards on Saturday April 2, in a six-hour free-admission marathon held at CCM's Corbett Auditorium. The event was attended by a sizeable group of students, faculty and opera fans that went on to select the talented young soprano Amanda Woodbury as its “Audience Favorite.” They were also there to applaud all competitors for the Corbett Award, the Italo Tajo Memorial Award, the Andrew White Memorial Award, the Seybold-Russell Award, the Artman/Straub Award, and the John Alexander Memorial Award.
Neal Goren, Artistic Director of Gotham Chamber Opera, Diane Zola, Artistic Administrator of Houston Grand Opera's Young Artists Program, and Dayton Opera's Artistic Director Thomas Bankston were the judges selecting the winners from a pool of 25 young hopefuls, with CCM's Opera Guru Robin Guarino acting in an advisory capacity to the three invited guests. The competition winners will receive full-tuition scholarships in addition to several career-advancement cash awards. All singers who are selected for CCM's pre-professional program are automatically guaranteed a $3,000 award. It is a well-known fact that students at CCM work with a world-class faculty of teaching-artists who train young operatic talents for professional singing careers. Gaining admission to CCM's rigorous post-graduate programs – the Doctorate, the Masters and the Artists Diploma, is a highly competitive process. The contestants were either accepted-incoming graduate students, or already in the midst of their post-graduate work at CCM.
Of the 25 young singers, 17 were females – evenly divided between mezzo-sopranos and sopranos. The 8 males were 1 bass, 5 baritones, and 2 tenors. The voices were – as can be expected – mostly lyrical and youthful, some dramatic, large and untamed. Some mezzos sounded sopranoish, some baritones tenorish – all of them in their early 20's and still maturing by the minute. The repertoire – presumably specified requirements – was the standard Italian-French-Mozartian canon with an interesting sprinkling, here and there, of the unusual. The mood became Russian again and again, with Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans making a couple of appearances, as did the ubiquitous Lensky, his nemesis Eugene Onegin, and love-sick Prince Yeletsky. The American-English Opera department was represented by Moore and Britten (not the law firm), as well as several renditions of Madame Mao's hysterical coloratura showpiece from John Adams' Nixon in China. Admittedly, these young singers are required to build up an arsenal of “calling card” arias – “Una voce poco fa” for the coloratura sopranos and mezzos appeared and reappeared. “Che gelida manina” was twice heard. In this sort of competition, the kind of selection that often wakes up the sleepy judges and makes the audience sit up and listen as the proceedings move into the fifth hour and counting is not the tried and true warhorse. In the course of the day we were treated to several surprises of this pleasant nature.
Young lyric baritone Frederick Ballentine sounded the first wake up clarion notes mid-morning with a flawlessly lyrical rendition of “Tanzlied des Pierrots” from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt eerily sounding for all the world like a young Herman Prey and effortlessly riding the high tessitura of the aria, ending it in a triple piano on the words “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen, es träumt sich zurück...” This was his winning ticket for the $10,000 Artman-Straub award. Tenor Yi-Li sang a heartfelt and idiomatic “Pourquoi me réveiller” and a lovely “Che gelida manina” both of which earned him the $15,000 Italo Tajo Memorial Award. The other male singer to receive an award was incoming Master's student Calvin Griffin, who received a special $2,000 Encouragement Award from the Corbett Foundation after a cheeky delivery of “Ruddier than the Cherry” from Handel's Acis and Galatea and a dignified and solid “Si la rigueur” from Halevy's La Juive, including a couple of rumbling low F's. A promising baby bass-baritone with a big future. Soprano Chabrelle Williams won the $10,000 Seybold-Russell award with her sinuous, sensual morning-after-the-night-before delivery of Louise’ “Depuis le jour.” The high-lying tessitura is no problem for Ms. Williams, who sings very good French, thank you. But what sold the audience on this lovely singer is how she wrapped her whole being around the charged sexuality of this aria sung by a girl just-turned woman overnight. Marvelous. She was asked to sing Donna Anna's treacherous “Non mi dir”, which she negotiated effortlessly, including the where-do-I-get-my-next-breath allegro section. A young Spinto in the works here.
A true-blue dramatic mezzo-soprano (think Dolora Zajick in her 20's) comes onto the scene once in a blue moon. Welcome young Brandi Samuel. To look at her, one would not think “mezzo with power tools.” Statuesque and attractive, Ms. Samuel looks more like a Carmen than an Erda. Oh, but the sound! She took on – on the request of the judges who were selecting from her repertory list (every contestant listed five arias, one he or she would choose, the others up to the judges)...she took on, I was saying, Erda's Warning from Das Rheingold. She had opened with her Russian-language choice, Tchaikovsky's Orleanskaja deva, and from it, Joan's Act I farewell to the hills and vales of her native land. The aria, better known for years as “Adieu forêts” is one of those Slavic battleaxes that hovers twixt soprano and mezzo in tessitura and heft. In both cases – Erda and Joan – we need what Ms. Samuel brought to the table: legato to die for, gravitas, passion and an exciting top voice. When the $15,000 Corbett Foundation Award was announced with her name attached to it, young Brandi Samuel broke down. This earned her as many audience tears and an ovation as long as the one she had in the morning. Stay tuned.
Two wonderful coloratura sopranos. Or better, two wonderful sopranos who sing coloratura very well. One, Jacqueline Echols sang Lucia's “Regnava nel silenzio”. Lovely and impassioned. She then regaled the audience with a vibrant version of Anne's Act II scene from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The arioso portion is tricky enough – a restless, questioning W.H. Auden tirade that doesn't quite tonally settle just as Anne Truelove can't. The cabaletta “I go to him” is a bear to sing with a treacherous final high C that lies in ambush for the soprano. Ms. Echols nailed the high C and sang the heck out of the whole seven minute tour-de-force. She won...no, she earned the $12,500 Andrew White Memorial Award. Soprano Xi Wang is going places these days, already transitioning from promising graduate student to bright early-career pro. Keep your eye on this lovely artist. Her “air des bijoux” from Faust was one of the high points of the day, sung with a limpid, crystalline lyric soprano replete with endless top notes and a winning personality.
Thanks to the generosity of the individuals and foundations after which the awards are named, what could have been yet another vocal competition became a celebration of talent in the Queen City's great performing-arts school CCM.
Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Rafael de Acha