I am sure it wasn’t part of the plan. Toronto mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo hobbled onto the stage of the Four Season Centre on crutches, having broken her foot. Thankfully, it was the other end of her body that brought her to the finals of Centre Stage 2015 in the first place. Those two small ligamentous tissues in herthroatwas in excellent form – the judges and the audience heartily agreed. Ms. D’Angelo was awarded both First Prize ($5,000) and the Audience Choice Award ($1,500), quite an impressive achievement. Second Prize ($3,000) went to BC mezzo Lauren Eberwein, and Third Prize ($1,500) Quebec baritone Bruno Roy.
Every year, aspiring young singers across Canada, pre-selected through an audition process, were invited to compete in the finals of Centre Stage, for a spot in the COC Ensemble the following season. As we all know, the COC Ensemble Studio is the premiere young artist program in Canada. The Competition began modestly in its first year, in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre with piano accompaniment. It has since moved onto the mainstage of the opera house, complete with full orchestra under the baton of Music Director Johannes Debus. This is the third year in this expanded format. Given that Centre Stage is as much a fund-raiser as it is a competition, the event has to accommodate both the competition itself and the $1,500 a plate gala dinner afterwards on the stage of the opera house. As a result, the event had a super-early start at 5 pm, with the early session billed as a “private audition” open only to a few invited guests and the media. A second, “public session” started at 6:30 pm. Each candidate sang a total of two arias, one in each session. The jury this year included General Director Alexander Neef, Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro, Director of Ensemble Studio/Orchestra Academy Nina Draganic, Head of Ensemble Studio Liz Upchurch, and Head Vocal Consultant Wendy Nielsen. The host – or co-hosts rather – were two current COC Ensemble members, soprano Karine Boucher and tenor Charles Sy. Good choices, as they both possess the requisite engaging stage persona and unbridled enthusiasm needed for an event like this.
I attended both the private and public sessions. The candidates represented promising young artists with solid foundation and beautiful voices, ready willing and able to embark on the next stage in their career development. To be sure, some are more ready for prime time than others, and we all hear things differently, but that’s the fun of a competition! Particularly noticeable this year is the uneven distribution of voice types among the eight finalists, likely reflecting the need of the Ensemble for next season. Four of the finalists were mezzo-sopranos this year while there were no tenors. They are, in order of appearance:
Pascale Spinney, mezzo / When I am laid in earth (Dido and Aeneas) / Siebel’s Aria (Faust)
Zachary Read, bar. / Valentin’s Aria (Faust) / Largo al factotum (Barbiere)
Samantha Pickett, sop. / Come in quest’ora bruna (Boccanegra) / Vitellia’s Aria (Tito)
Emily D’Angelo, mezzo / Voi che sapete (Nozze) / Contro un cor (Barbiere)
Bruno Roy, bar. / Bella siccome un angelo (Don Pasquale) / Count’s Aria (Nozze)
Marjorie Maltais, mezzo / Non piu mesta (Cenerentola) / Stefano’s Aria (Romeo et Juliette)
Eliza Johnson, sop. / Ach, ich liebte (Entfuhrung) / Caro nome (Rigoletto)
Lauren Eberwein, mezzo / Composer’s Aria (Ariadne) / Parto, parto (Tito)
The singers this year made up quite a strong field. There were only three prizes (not counting the Audience Choice), while there could have been more than three winners. To my ears, in addition to the lovely singing of Ms. D’Angelo, kudos to Marjorie Maltais’s for her fine “Non piu mesta.” She also looked terrific onstage. Given the venerable BBC Cardiff Singer of the World has a “Frock Watch,” why not the COC? For me, the gown of Ms. Maltais was stunning, the best of the evening. Baritone Zachary Read sang both “Largo al factotum” and “Avant de quitter ces lieux” with a compact-sized, appealingly fresh lyric baritone, combined with an engaging stage presence. Soprano Eliza Johnson was a lovely Gilda in “Caro nome.” I also liked the dramatically vivid Composer’s Aria from Lauren Eberwein.
After the competition proper, the jury panel retired for their deliberations. The audience was entertained by two Canadians currently singing in La traviata. Soprano Joyce El Khoury sang a sparkling Jewel Song from Faust and an affecting Song to the Moon from Rusalka. The fast-rising tenor Andrew Haji showed off his plangent tone in “En fermant les yeux” from Massenet’s Manon. The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell spoke most eloquently about the role of arts in our society. COC General Director Alexander Neef thanked the audience for attending this event, and both the COC Music Director Johannes Debus and the Orchestra got a sustained ovation from the appreciative audience. Neef proceeded to announce the three prize winners. There you have it – another year, another set of winners. In truth, those that didn’t make winners’ circle are also very fine singers – they are all winners. One can’t help but be struck by the wealth of operatic talent in Canada, and I wish all the singers my very best in their pursuit of a career in opera.
[Correction: The original 1st paragraph incorrectly reversed Bruno Roy and Lauren Eberwein as winning 2nd/3rd place.]
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