Richard Zeller, a 29-year-old baritone from Fairlawn, N.J., is a big double winner in the Baltimore Opera Company's annual national vocal contest, winning both the $12,000 Opera Guild Prize and the $1,000 best singer prize voted by 400 listeners at Friedberg Concert Hall.
Zeller sang "Per me quinto" from Verdi's "Don Carlo" and "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's "Tannhauser" with elegant, moving expression to win the top prize of cash at the contest Saturday and a contract provided by the guild and Barbara and Carl Hecht in memory of Bertha L. Straus.
His voice was big and soft when it needed to be.
Recently switching to baritone from bass-baritone, Zeller has specialized in smaller opera roles, oratorios and other sacred music such as Bach festivals. "I expect to do the heavier operatic roles but don't want to push them until I'm ready," he said. He recently won a Richard Tucker career grant.
The Kansas native sang in Handel's "Messiah" with the Columbia Pro Cantare last December at the Kennedy Center, will repeat the role next December but before then will sing in two center concerts with the group in September. He and his wife Saundra are expecting their third child.
The other five finalists winning awards were: baritone Elias Mokole, of Akron, Ohio, the $10,000 Maryland Prize of $5,000 in cash (the Morris A. Mechanic Memorial Award) and a $5,000 contract with the company (the Clementine and Duane L. Peterson Award in memory of soprano Rosa Ponselle).
Also, baritone John Packard, of Elmhurst, Ill., the $3,000 Chesapeake Prize (known as the Alfred C. VerValen Memorial Award); tenor Roy Cornelius Smith, of Big Stone Gap, Va., the $2,500 Eleanor Steber Music Foundation Award.
Also, tenor Stephen Mark Brown, of Lansing, Mich., the $2,000 Puccini Award, and mezzo-soprano Kim Kodes, of Kenosha, Wis., the $1,000 Dragi M. Jovanovski Award.
Unusual features of this year's competition were the sole female finalist and the lack of sopranos and basses among the six finalists. Included in the 120 original contestants heard earlier in the week were 54 sopranos, 24 mezzo-sopranos, 21 tenors, 17 baritones and two basses.
Many previous Baltimore prize winners have gone on to celebrated opera careers, including James Morris, Paul Plishka, Gordon Hawkins, Florence Quivar, Juliana Gondek, Harolyn Blackwell, Marilyn Mims, Michael Sylvester, Deborah Voigt, Maria Ewing and John Aler.
Pianist James Harp accompanied the singers Saturday. Judges were former Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese, Irma Cooper and Robert Lombardo.