Opera singer works Bugs out

Competition: Barbara Quintiliani started humbly, with a cartoonish performance. This week, she's bringing a 24-karat voice to the Marian Anderson finals.

July 22, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

It could be said that Bugs Bunny gave Barbara Quintiliani her first big break in opera.

She was 15 at the time. A Navy brat living in Virginia Beach. A kid with no clue as to what she'd be when she grew up. For lack of anything better to do, she had joined her high school chorus and her attitude was getting on the music director's nerves.

"He gave me a tape of an aria and said, `I want you to prove you can learn at least one thing,' " she says.

But the only opera the teen-ager had ever seen or heard was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. So she listened to the tape, hammed it up like a cartoon character and blew her high school choral director away.

After he recovered, he suggested that she take professional singing lessons.

That was seven years ago. Since then, the 22-year-old soprano has won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and debuted at the Boston Lyric Opera as Annina in Verdi's La Traviata. Now she and 34 other singers from around the world have come to the University of Maryland, College Park to compete in the Marian Anderson International Vocal Competition.

Named for the renowned contralto and humanitarian, the contest is held by the university once every four years. The singers, ages 21 to 39, applied by submitting a recording of themselves. Those admitted had to learn 100 minutes of repertoire and had to be prepared to sing it on demand and by heart.

"The only recital I've given is my senior recital," says Quintiliani, who now lives in Dorchester, Mass., and graduated in May from the New England Conservatory. "I had to really work, really cram it in to learn enough repertoire. I mean, you're humming it on the train, you're talking to yourself about it, you're dreaming it."

The contest began one week ago. In Round 1, all 35 singers performed a 20-minute recital. By Saturday evening, a seven-member international judging panel had eliminated all but 12 performers. In Round 2, each contestant sang for 45 minutes -- in essence performing an entire recital. By this morning, the judges will have decided which three contestants have been selected to continue.

On Saturday evening, the three remaining singers will perform -- accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- at the Kennedy Center. Then, at long last, a single performer will win top honors at the Marian Anderson competition, a check for $20,000 and a chance to sing at Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York.

"We see it as fostering excellence," says George Moquin, executive director of international competitions at the University of Maryland. "People envision competitions as launching careers, but that doesn't happen very much."

Perhaps, but that didn't make the contestants any less nervous on Sunday when the second round was about to begin.

Inside Tawes Theatre, where the competition is being held, it was cool and cavernous. The rows of seats were nearly empty. From their balcony seats above it all, the judges watched. An announcer introduced each singer in a voice as solemn as a classical music radio announcer. No one dared cough.

The seven judges, who all are successful singers, have individual methods of assessing talent. But they all were searching for the same thing: They seek a performer with extraordinary talent, one who sings like a dream, whose phrasing is perfect, who is musical, who can tell a story, who is expressive, who enunciates clearly, whose voice carries, who isn't overly nervous, who can sing in many languages, who is not in love with his or her own voice, who is poised, who moves audiences, who is able to interpret characters.

In short, explained Anne Gjevang, a contralto from Oslo, Norway, they seek that which is "impossible to describe in words."

But she tried anyway. "We listen to the voice to see if it is floating. If someone feels the music and goes with its natural waves and colors," she said.

"If someone is a perfect instrument but has no heart then I'm not interested. Why do people listen to us? They want to feel something, to find something lost, to learn something new. That is what we are looking for."

The contestants have come here to sing from places as near as Beltsville, and as far as Tallinn, Estonia. Many already have successful vocal careers; others are just beginning. To get here, some have studied for years. Some work two jobs so they can afford the voice coaches, the outfits, the accompanist, the travel. Some practice hours every day. Some sing in the shower. Some pray. One left her husband.

Ask them why they do it and they say that this kind of music is infectious. It makes your pulse race and your breath come short and it gets in your blood and hums from your fingers to your toes. Once you catch it, they say, it catches you. "It is a disease!" said Stefka Evstatieva, a judge from Sofia, Bulgaria. "Once you begin to sing -- oof! That's it. You must sing forever!"

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