The Annapolis Opera Vocal Competition might be called the hometown version of American Idol, except here all of the opera contestants displayed fine voices -- and the trio of tough judges required them to sing in at least two languages.
The 20th annual Vocal Competition finals concert on Sunday was free, through a grant from the Helena Foundation. The audience at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts matched Idol audiences in enthusiasm, and had the edge in classical music knowledge. Unlike Idol, no contestant left empty-handed, each receiving cash prizes of at least $500 with the top prize $2,500 awarded to encourage further study. Many past winners have gone on to professional careers.
When the competition started in conjunction with the St. John's College Caritas Society, 23 local singers vied for prizes totaling $1,000. In 1999, the pot grew to $3,450 as the Helena Foundation, a private foundation that supports medical, educational and arts activities, began sponsoring the event. Today the prize money -- a record $9,500 this year -- still comes from individual donors.
Last week, three judges winnowed the field of more than 50 applicants to eight finalists. Final round judges included Carmen Balthrop, who has sung with major opera companies and is a professor of voice at the University of Maryland School of Music, and soprano Marianna Busching, who also has sung internationally and has been on the vocal faculty at Peabody Institute for 17 years. They joined judge Ronald J. Gretz, musical director and conductor of Annapolis Opera.
All singers were judged for technical skill and vocal expressiveness in two or three languages, and were expected to maintain professionalism and stage presence. Each singer performed at least two arias: the first of their choosing and the second selected by the judges from a list of five provided by contestants.
The first singer was coloratura soprano Sungji Kim, who opened the program with Norina's aria "Quel guardo, il cavaliere" from Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale. She displayed vocal power and brightness and a facility with Italian before setting a different mood when the judges requested "Willow Song" from The Ballad of Baby Doe. Kim sang expressively, hitting every high note fearlessly in a performance that earned second prize -- the $1,700 William Boldyga and Betty S. Myers Incentive Award.
Baritone Jay Jung chose Leporello's "Madammina" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, listing Giovanni's many amorous conquests in each country. Jung got into the aria with relish, portraying the comic servant exposing his master. The judges requested a sharp change with Wagner's "O, du mein Holder Abendstern" ("Evening Star") from Tannhauser, which Jung delivered soulfully to merit the top prize, the Grace Gelinas Clark Memorial Award for $2,000, plus the Director/Conductor Award of $500.
Contestants who were later given $500 study awards included mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, who offered arias by Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and soprano Martha Banks, who delivered an aria from Puccini's Turandot along with "Porgi Amor" from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Soprano Jessica Lennick sang "Have peace, Jo" from Adamo's Little Women and Massenet's "Frere, voyez le beau Brouquet."
Baritone Ku Won Lee sang an aria from Verdi's Otello and "Warm as the autumn light" from Baby Doe to win a $500 study award.
In a most demanding performance, soprano Claire Kuttler chose a Dvorak aria, "Song to the Moon," before complying with the judges' requests to sing Mimi's farewell "Donde lieta" from La Boheme. She did so touchingly before delivering a joyous "Jewel Song" that earned her the $1,500 third prize, the Lindley Incentive Award.
The final contestant, Danielle Pastin, sang a ravishing "E strano," Violetta's aria that runs a gamut of emotions ending with recapping Alfredo's aria. Then she honored the judges' request for "Mi chiamano Mimi" that rapturously evoked spring and love intensely enough to win not only fourth prize, combining the Lagally Memorial Award with the Todd Duncan Award for $1,300, but also the $300 Audience Choice Award.
Nancy Eagle Lindley, chairwoman of the 20th Annapolis Vocal Competition, this week seemed much in the afterglow of the event, which attracted the largest audience in memory. When it was suggested the two top prize winners lacked dazzle, Lindley lent some insight, saying Jung's was "a finished performance in every way."
"In his performance he showed that he has the potential to be a great character singer," she said, stressing the importance of a potentially enduring career that would probably outlast any momentary sparkle.