Vocal bliss takes soprano Kishna Davis past scheduling glitch and toward Italy

June 09, 1996|By GLENN MCNATT

I was delighted to learn that Kishna Davis, an aspiring young soprano from Columbia, had been chosen as a finalist in this year's Baltimore Opera Company Vocal Competition. Still, I didn't see how she could win if she had to perform in two different cities on the same night. Let me back up a bit. The Baltimore Opera Company Vocal Competition is one of the country's most prestigious contests for singers, drawing talented young artists from across the United States and Canada.

This year about 100 singers competed for the contest's four prizes, which are awarded in the form of tuition and airfare for musical studies abroad. The event was held earlier this month in Peabody Institute's Friedberg Concert Hall.

Davis, 27, is a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York City, where she received a master's degree in 1995, and of Morgan State University, from which she graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1991.

But singers have to hustle to make careers for themselves, and Davis has been extremely busy over the past few months. This year she returned to Juilliard for postgraduate work. She had been rehearsing the role of the countess in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" with the Philadelphia-based Opera North company. At the last minute, she also signed up for the BOC contest.

The devil is in the details, however. The fine print in the BOC brochure noted that the contest would be held over three days. On Thursday, all the contestants were to perform for the judges, who would select about 20 semifinalists. On Friday, the judges would hear one aria in the afternoon and one in the evening from each semifinalist, then winnow the field to four finalists for Saturday.

Perhaps because she was rushing, Davis missed the potential conflict in her schedule, for the fact was she unwittingly had promised to perform in Opera North's "Figaro" on the same Friday evening as the BOC semifinals. By the time she realized she had a problem, it was too late.

It was the kind of dilemma that sends chills down the spine of any performing artist. The conflict meant that if Davis survived the preliminaries she'd have to choose between breaking her commitment to Opera North or dropping out of the BOC contest.

Davis is a trouper, though, and I was impressed by her coolness in face of impending disaster. When the potential conflict was pointed out, she said she simply would take things one day at a time.

To make a long story short, things turned out as I suspected

they might. Davis possesses a naturally juicy, superbly trained lyric soprano voice that is absolutely thrilling from top to bottom. She also has great stage presence and the dramatic good looks of a young Leontyne Price. So I wasn't surprised when she won the preliminary round on Thursday.

On Friday, Davis was given permission to sing both her arias during the afternoon session of the semifinals, which would give her time to race to Philadelphia for that evening's performance of "Figaro."

Judges' warning

But the judges warned that her performance probably would lose some of its impact on the panel, since each of the other semifinalists would have another opportunity to show his or her mettle that evening.

There was a final little quirk: The order in which the semifinalists were to sing was drawn by lot. Davis drew 13.

"That's your lucky number today, Kishna," I overheard one of her friends whisper. "Now go out there and slay 'em!"

And that is exactly what Davis proceeded to do. Her singing sent shivers up and down one's spine, and by the time she finished her second aria, I noticed many in the audience wiping away tears.

There's something about the sound of a singer who is communicating straight from the heart that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. The French call it jouissance, which translates roughly as "bliss," "ecstasy" or "elation."

No one quite knows what this quality is or where it comes from. It doesn't come across at all on recordings, though one occasionally hears it live in the religiously inspired voices of church soloists.

Even among superstar operatic sopranos it is rare. Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Cecilia Bartoli all have beautiful, pure voices but lack the quality of jouissance.

On the other hand, the much less well known soprano Barbara Daniels, who performed in the BOC's production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" last year, had moments in which she could utterly transfix an audience with what one critic has called "uncanny din."

At any rate, Davis has it, and it carried her straight through the finals the next evening, where she won the company's Camerata Award -- a full scholarship to a summer opera workshop in Lucca, Italy. It wasn't the biggest prize, but it seemed right for her: Davis has never been to Italy, and the experience and contacts she gains there could prove invaluable.

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