Loretta Ver Valen, one of Baltimore's better-kept opera secrets with a forgotten singing past of her own, performs the oldest ritual of the Baltimore Opera Company again next week because she can't resist "when the old bug bites."
For the 28th year, without fanfare, she will be scheduling and announcing young opera singers competing in the Baltimore Opera Company vocal competition, now worth $25,000 in cash and performance contracts. Semifinals June 7 and finals June 8 are again free and open to the public at Friedberg Concert Hall.
It's a good time to spot future stars. Singers who won the top prize or other awards before starring at the Metropolitan Opera or elsewhere include James Morris, Paul Plishka, Gordon Hawkins, Florence Quivar, Juliana Gondek, Harolyn Blackwell, Marilyn Mims, Michael Sylvester, Deborah Voigt, Maria Ewing and John Aler.
It was in 1963 that opera president Russell Wunderlic turned to Ver Valen and asked if she would organize a $500 competition of singers after the Carling Brewing Co. offered to help the opera.
"I said yes. I had started with Baltimore Opera in the 1950s on Rosa Ponselle's auditions committee. So I was familiar with the company. Now I can't stop. Every year the old bug bites."
She also knew opera intimately, from singing and teaching. Details come reluctantly. But, in fact, Ver Valen is a once active operatic soprano who years ago sang leading roles such as Nedda in "Pagliacci," Pamina in "The Magic Flute" and Mimi in "La Boheme" in the old East Coast-roaming DeFeo and Columbia opera companies. She prefers with a smile that "my age be kept among my friends."
Her operatic background will be less a surprise when opera fans hear her once again melodically intone names of singers or arias in the semifinals from 1 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. and the finals at 7:30 p.m. James Harp and William Yannuzzi will accompany.
As chairman of auditions, Ver Valen processes all $35 applications. Some 116 singers have applied this year, down from last year's 147. As usual, sopranos and mezzos outnumber others, with tenors again the rarities. All but about 20 singers are cut in the closed first round Wednesday, June 5, and Thursday, June 6, setting up the open semifinals and finals.
Final-round judges Licia Albanese, Robert Lombardo and Irma Cooper will look for stage presence, interpretation, enunciation, tone quality and other factors. In recent years, rules changes have allowed singers to pick their own selections and have limited applicants to Americans citizens.
The company made the latter change after 1988 when three Asians were finalists and the winner was Kewei Wang, a citizen of China. Applicants are also ineligible if they work for companies with budgets over $2 million. Michael Harrison, general director, said then the changes were not discriminatory but designed to help young American singers who have little help, the original contest target in the manner of the American-trained Ponselle.
For Ver Valen, the widow of retired real estate developer Alfred C. Ver Valen and mother of two, it's a hectic week but she's ready.
"I don't know when I'll stop. Opera is a great deal to me. I think the singers as a whole are much better equipped vocally than years ago, more conscious of what is required in competitions.
"When you get into music, you never really get out of it," says the one-time president of the Baltimore Symphony Associates. "And besides, if you don't keep busy, it's over. If you don't think, you lose your mind. If you don't walk, you lose your legs. Use it or lose it."