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THE SCOOP | Indigenous Soprano Elisabeth St-Gelais Wins 10th Annual COC Centre Stage Competition

By Joseph So on October 30, 2023

L-R: Duncan Stenhouse, Emily Rocha, Elisabeth St-Gelais (Photo: Joseph So)
L-R: Duncan Stenhouse, Emily Rocha, Elisabeth St-Gelais (Photo: Michael Cooper)

For opera lovers interested in young voices with lots of potential, an autumn highlight is the Canadian Opera Company’s Centre Stage, a singing competition for aspiring young artists. Most, if not all, of the winners will be invited to join the COC Ensemble Studio the following year. Simply put, Centre Stage is a great place to look for stars of tomorrow.

This year’s Centre Stage is the tenth in its history. It began modestly, with the event taking place in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, and with piano accompaniment. Later on, it was moved to the mainstage of the opera house, complete with full orchestra under the baton of Music Director Johannes Debus. It’s also a fundraiser for the COC and the Ensemble Studio. Premium ticket holders have access to pre-performance receptions and the like. Last year’s Centre Stage even offered a post-performance dinner on the stage of the opera house for a cool $1,500 a plate. This year it has been somewhat scaled down, with only private receptions.

Unlike other singing competitions such as Cardiff or Vienna’s Belvedere or the Met, Centre Stage is relatively brief. There’s an afternoon session, in addition to the public competition in the evening. The afternoon session is private, although for a few short years it was open to the media. Each contestant sang two arias, one in each session. The jury this year included General Director Perryn Leech, Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, Canadian conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, and Canadian actor/director Thom Allison. The MC this year was Canadian TV personality Sangita Patel.

This year’s Centre Stage was noticeably different, in that there were no guest artists performing while the jury panel was deliberating. Without an intermission, it was shorter, at less than two hours. More of the proceedings were pretaped this year. For example, we got to hear the contestants speaking about their life and their art, and saying a few words about what they were about to sing.

A more significant change this year was the unmistakable nod to pop culture in the choice of the jury panel members and the host. Two of the panel members were not involved with opera or classical music in a major way. Similarly, the host, Ms. Patel, billed as a Canadian television personality, has little or no connection to opera. Incidentally, she made a couple of embarrassing factual errors in introducing the first contestant, bass Matthew Li — not a great start to the proceedings.

I point out these things not to be mean spirited. I feel strongly that an opera event such as Centre Stage should be left to those who really know the field. There were a lot of references to pop culture by the host that were lost on the opera audience. I noticed that the audiences sitting around me were not laughing at the jokes. As a classical music and opera lover, I am not knowledgeable in pop music and entertainment, and I don’t think I am alone. I spoke with a few of the audience members afterwards, and they were scratching their heads as well.

Now to the Competition. To be sure, all seven candidates were very talented singers with fine voices, solid technical foundation, a surfeit of expressivity, and ample communicative power. The decisions of the judges couldn’t have been easy, as often it boils down to individual preferences. I can honestly say I enjoyed all the performances.

Bass Matthew Li kicked off the proceedings with Banco’s aria “Come dal ciel principita” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Li’s voice to my ears is more of a bass-baritone than a true bass, and he sang the aria very well with good musicality, just a bit short on richness and a hall-filling sound that one has come to expect in exponents of this aria. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair of me to make the comparison, as I kept hearing the voice of Nicolai Ghiaurov in my head…

He was followed by soprano Gabriella Turgeon in Cleopatra’s lovely “Piangero la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare. She sang it with bright tone, with a touch of metal at the long held top notes, and very good coloratura. Next came baritone Jamal Al-Titi in Onegin’s aria from Eugene Onegin. His is a voice I am familiar with, having heard him sing on several occasions in recitals and masterclasses at U of T. His lyric baritone sounded terrific, and being of Belorussian heritage, his Russian was idiomatic. He’s also a bit of a showman, obvious from his stage persona. An excellent performance to my ears.

What’s a singing competition without a tenor, you say? Good that we have Matthew Bermudez to fill the void, with the gorgeous aria “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir d’amore. His lyric tenor has a nice timbre and ideal in Nemorino, aside from the occasional pitch and intonation issues. Soprano Emily Rocha sang Gilda’s “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, an ideal piece for her lyric-coloratura. She sang it beautifully, with a nice warm timbre and very good flexibility, although I would have preferred a fuller sound in the highest reaches.

Bass Duncan Stenhouse contributed the least familiar piece of the evening, an aria from Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov. His voice is a true bass, sturdy and warm in timbre, with the requisite gravitas to do justice to this piece. I only wish for a bit more varied expression. The final performer was Innu soprano Elisabeth St-Gelais. I admit I did a double take when it was announced that she chose the diva chestnut, “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca. Her voice has the right timbre and ring to the tone, and she sang it beautifully, albeit with a slight tendency to rush ahead of the orchestra, supportively conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus.

A few observations. To my ears, all seven singers acquitted themselves well. These are young voices, still works in progress for the most part. None are particularly big, but as is often the case, the volume and power will grow with maturity. Two arias — one in each of the two sessions — is all that’s required to decide on a competition? Frankly, it’s insufficient, especially when you compare it to other major competitions the likes of the Met, Hans Gabor Belvedere, Cardiff, Queen Elisabeth et cetera, where contestants are required to sing multiple arias and songs in several languages.

While the jury was out deliberating, the audience members, both in the house and at home watching the livestream, were asked to vote for the Audience Choice Award. After a relatively short pause, the jury members came on stage with their verdict:

  • Soprano Elisabeth St-Gelais /First Prize ($7,500); Audience Choice Award ($1,000).
  • Soprano Emily Rocha /Second Prize ($5,000).
  • Bass Duncan Stenhouse /Third Prize ($2,500).

As in any competition, there are winners and then there are the rest — I refuse to call them losers. To reach the Centre Stage finals, the contestants have already demonstrated their talent and their ability. Doing competitions is part of their vocal journey and a learning experience. I look forward to hearing all of them again in the future.

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Joseph So
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