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A Young Singers’ Gala at the COC

A. Sheppard, D. Katotakis, A. Neef, C. Sy (© Michael Cooper)

With this second edition of Centre Stage, the Canadian Opera Company’s vocal competition for singers entering the company’s Ensemble Studio, the event has truly become a gala occasion, attracting a much larger audience than last year. Seven finalists (one soprano, two mezzos, two tenors, one baritone and one bass-baritone) were chosen from about 150 applicants at auditions held in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and New York. Each singer performed two arias accompanied by the COC Orchestra under the company’s music director, Johannes Debus. We were treated to several arias by Mozart (no surprise), plus numbers by Donizetti, Rossini, Gounod, Lalo, and Barber. Ben Heppner, an EA member from 1982 to 1985, presided. It all took place in front of a glittering, starry curtain on a stage lined by candle lanterns - kudos to lighting designer Davida Tkach.

The Ensemble Studio, which currently has ten members, was established in 1981 when Lotfi Mansouri ran the company. Its long-time head is Liz Upchurch. As one would expect, she was on the five-member judging panel, along with COC General Director Alexander Neef, Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro, Music Administrator Sandra Gavinchuk, and vocal consultant Wendy Nielsen. Three prizes were awarded, plus an audience choice award (each seat had an electronic gizmo one could vote with).

Winner of the top prize - plus the audience choice award - was Charles Sy (pronounced see), a tenor from Toronto who is studying for his master’s degree at the University of Toronto. He treated us to “Dies Bildinis ist bezaubernd schön” from Die Zauberflöte and “Una furtiva lagrima” from Don Pasquale.

Second prize went to baritone Dimitri Katotakis, also from Toronto, and currently studying at McGill University. He performed nicely characterized pieces from Le nozze di Figaro (“Hai gia vinta la causa...Vedrò mentr’io sospiro”) and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (“Mab, la reine des mensonges”).

Third prize went to yet another tenor, Aaron Sheppard from St. John’s, Newfoundland, who is currently a member of the Atelier Lyrique at l’Opéra de Montréal. He sang beautifully nuanced arias from Le roi d’Ys (“Vainement, ma bien aimée”) and Cosi fan tutte (“Un’aura amorosa”).

Much to general delight, the surprise guest of the evening turned out to be Adrianne Pieczonka. While the panel went backstage to discuss their decision, she sang “Ebben? No andrò lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally, Verdi’s grand aria “Pace, pace mio dio”, and then Richard Strauss’s all-embracing “Zueignung”.

We can surely look forward to another such gala next November.

Michael Johnson



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