Last night I was in a very full Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre for the second annual COC Studio Ensemble competition. Ten singers, selected down from 146 in auditions across Canada and in New York were competing for cash prizes and an opportunity to join the COC Ensemble Studio. COC General Director Alexander Neef chaired the panel of judges which included soprano and teacher Wendy Nielsen as well as assorted COC brass. Chorus Master Sandra Horst MC’d in her own inimitable fashion. The format was typical of such events. Each singer offered five arias. They got to sing one of their choice and then the judges requested a second from the remaining four. Piano accompaniment alternated between the equally excellent Rachel Andrist and Steven Philcox.
I don’t know if there are written rules on what repertoire to pick but there are certainly unwritten ones. All ten singers offered Mozart. All ten singers offered something from the 20th or 21st centuries but all those pieces were firmly tonal and anyway, only two got performed and they were standards for this type of event; Pierrot’s Tanzlied from Die tote Stadt and Tom Rakewell’s “Here I stand”. In between the Mozart and the modern it was pretty much all 19th century Romantic and at the lighter end of the spectrum for the most part though two singers did offer some Handel and one actually got to sing it.
So, how were the singers? Overall, very good indeed as one might expect given the filtering process. First up was soprano Kelsey Vicary. She’s that competition staple; a pretty, light lyric soprano with an accurate, pleasant voice and decent acting skills but a bit underpowered. Her choice of aria was also probably a mistake. In this context, first up, if one is going to sing the Sempre libera!, which every member of the audience has heard sung by all the greats, one had better be able to blow their socks off. Kelsey didn’t quite manage that.
She was followed by bass Nathan Keoughan who gave us Se vuol ballare and an aria from La Bohème. He was struggling with the high end of his range and I really wish he had chosen something to show off his true bass capabilities. O Isis und Osiris was on his list but we didn’t hear it. A pity I think.
Third up was dramatic soprano Aviva Fortunata. She started with Verdi’s Ernani involami which showed off her dark, powerful voice very well. She had good breath control and quite a lot of agility for a big instrument. I was impressed. The judges then asked her to sing Or sai chi l’onore which she sang well, if melodramatically. I’m sure this was intended as her chance to show versatility but I had much rather heard her sing another piece that really showed off her strengths. It’s not like big, young voices come along all that often and they should be encouraged. Suffice to say that Ms. Fortunata would have been among the winners if I had been judging but, alas, the pros disagreed.
Charlotte Burrage was the first of two mezzos of the evening. She’s clearly a skilled singer with quite a bit of power and genuine mezzo tone colour. She made a very decent fist of the notorious Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos and I suspect that is what put her among the winners at the end of the night. The basics are clearly there and if she can become a bit more expressive she’ll be a very fine singer.
Tenor Andrew Haji rounded out the first half of the programme. He sang a very idiomatic Quanto è bella with enough power and sweet tone. It was followed by a quite lovely Un’aura amorosa. Leslie Barcza pointed out that none of his choices had any really high notes in them. Whether that was because he was playing safe or because he doesn’t have them, who knows? In any event I was impressed and he got my “Audience’s Choice” vote.
The second half started with baritone Clarence Frazer who gave us arias by Korngold and Mozart. He’s got a really pleasing dark tone and some oomph. He also has unforced high notes and a smooth transition between registers. Very promising I thought and maybe an outside contender for a prize.
Danielle MacMillan was the second mezzo. She sang Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle? from Roméo et Juliette and Torno di Tito a lato. She has quite a bright voice for a mezzo and showed agility, accuracy and good musicianship without ever sounding really distinctive. I thought the judges might go for her as she has the kind of versatile competence that seems to be favoured by competitions and YAPs. I was wrong.
Tenor Michael Marino offered a bold programme including Ah! Mes amis but we didn’t get to hear whether he had all those top Cs. Instead we got the Questa o quella from Rigoletto and Here I Stand; trusty stand-by of these events. He’s a confident actor and powerful singer though with a bit less swagger in the voice than the acting. If he can develop a bit more refinement and get the acting more into the voice he could be very good indeed.
The final soprano was Lara Secord-Haid who took the shiniest dress award hands down. She also picked a bold selection of arias including some tricky showpiece coloratura pieces. Regnava nel silenzio from Lucia allowed her to demonstrate a very interesting voice with lots of power and well managed coloratura. Her top notes came off a bit harsh but that could very well be the RBA and where I was sitting high up. That space is not kind to high notes. Her second aria, from Roméo et Juliette was also quite impressive.
The final singer was bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. He started off with Non più andrai which he sang with excellent grasp of the line and clearly with power to burn. He did rather ham it up though. The judges asked for Handel’s Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto as his second piece. This was rather impressive with long, accurate, clearly articulated runs and genuine grasp of the da capo form. He was definitely a contender and, judging by the applause, the audience’s choice.
So the judges withdrew for rather a long time to deliberate. My scorecard had Haji at the top with Fortunata second and a complete inability to pick a third from among several contenders. But I wasn’t a judge. The official verdict was:
Third place ($1500): Charlotte Burrage
Second place ($3000): Andrew Haji
Winner ($5000): Gordon Bintner
Bintner also won the “Audience’s Choice”. I was a bit surprised at first but on reflection I think the judges got it about right though I do feel that Aviva Fortunata was very unlucky and I hope I get a chance to hear her again.
No announcements were made about offers of a place in the Ensemble Studio. Looking at who they have and who is leaving at the end of this season I’d expect to see offers made to a tenor, a baritone and a mezzo and maybe one more singer so I guess all three prize winners likely have a job next year.
Summing up, it was a great evening. The standard was high across the board and the winners very good indeed. It’s a really great idea to make this a public event and I can see it becoming a firm fixture in the calendar for anyone in Toronto who is serious about opera and its future.
Headshots courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company. Photo of the winners by Chris Hutcheson.