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article imageCanada's opera stars of tomorrow shine at 'Centre Stage' Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 26, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Young opera talent was celebrated recently in Toronto at the Canadian Opera Company's annual vocal competition. Hometown favorites made up two of the three final winners, but the evening, overall, was a great showcase for Canada's impressive opera talent.
Now in its fourth year, the Ensemble Studio singing competition gives young Canadian vocalists the chance to strut their stuff before a five-person, COC adjudication panel, including General Manager Alexander Neef, and an eager, highly enthusiastic audience. The competition, which initially started out as an intimate affair with piano accompaniment, grew into the Centre Stage event last year; the competition was moved from the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre into the main auditorium of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, an interactive audience element was added, and a ritzy onstage dinner (post-event, for $1500 a ticket) was added. Winners receive cash prizes and a chance to be a part of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, a training program for young vocalists between one and three years that provides professional guidance and opportunities. As current Ensemble member soprano Aviva Fortunata has noted, "there is an expectation you come in fully prepared and ready to learn."
This year's well-attended event (roughly 900 were there) bodes well for the future of not only the Ensemble and the Canadian Opera Company, but for opera culture in Canada. Though Centre Stage has been called "the Canadian Idol of the opera world," the event is both a fundraising platform and a way of celebrating young operatic talent in Canada, and provides a solid means for aspiring singers to get some experience and exposure. As Neef noted in his introduction, Centre Stage is "poised to become one the Canadian Opera Company's most important events" but that "ultimately, it's a celebration of Canada." This year's event, hosted by tenor (and CBC radio host) Ben Heppner, attracted a wide mix of young and old, of those new to opera and longtime fans — not surprising, given the $35 price tag (to the singing competition itself) for those 16 to 29 years old. (The price for those over 29 was $100, and included pre-event drinks and charcuterie.) Neef noted in a recent interview that Centre Stage offers a good introduction because it "can help give people access who might be afraid of seeing a full opera. It gives them a full idea of how dynamic it actually is.”
Ensemble Studio Competition finalists and winners  2014.
Ensemble Studio Competition finalists and winners, 2014.
Michael Cooper
There was a strong hometown element too, as three of the seven finalists hail from Toronto, and were greeted with loud cheers. Chosen from a pool of 175, with auditions held earlier this year in Toronto, New York, Vancouver, and Montreal, the seven finalists (two tenors, two mezzo-sopranos, one baritone, one bass-baritone, and one soprano) betrayed nerves, excited, and in many cases, ballsy confidence and magnetic stage presence when it came their turn to perform their two pieces before the well-dressed crowd. The COC Orchestra, under the masterful baton of Johannes Debus, the COC's Music Director, opened the evening with a beautifully melodious performance of Otto Nicolai's overture to the 1848 opera Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor), perhaps a nod to the company's recent, popular production of Verdi's Falstaff. A short video introduction familiarized the audience with the audition process and the itinerant nerves for the applicants, and provided a charming backstage look at the pressures of being a young vocalist in Canada. Host Ben Heppner came onstage soon after, outlining the evening, the history of the COC Ensemble (of which he himself is a graduate), and introducing each performer.
COC Music Director Johannes Debus applauds the Ensemble Studio Competition finalists and winners.
COC Music Director Johannes Debus applauds the Ensemble Studio Competition finalists and winners.
Michael Cooper
Singers were varied but all very strong; the work of Mozart figured prominently in all the selections, with only one modern work (by Samuel Barber) on offer. Mezzo Soprano Michelle Siemens offered a lovely reading of the famous "Voi che sapete" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, while bass-baritone Nathan Keoughan provided a confident rendition of "Se vuol ballaret" from the same opera. Toronto native, and ultimately first-prize winner, tenor Charles Sy, did a loving version of the famous "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and a zesty rendition of "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schon" from Mozart's The Magic Flute, while mezzo-soprano Zoe Band showed great vocal control in her performance of Barber's "Must the winter come so soon?" from Vanessa and a selection from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Baritone Dimitri Katotakis (who took second prize) was a magnetic stage presence, showing both confident singing and acting skills throughout his two selections, from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Tenor Aaron Sheppard (awarded third prize) showed off his lyric tenor style to great effect in a piece from Edouard Lalo's Le roi d'Ys, while soprano Eliza Johnson embraced the drama of her selections through both voice and physical movements, turning her two selections (from Mozart's Idomeneo and Gounod's Romeo et Juliette) into mini-operas of their own.
Famed Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was the surprise guest of the evening, performing passionate renditions of the much-loved "Ebben…Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani’s La Wally as well as “Pace, pace” from Verdi’s La forza del destino; a gracious, sonorous rendition of Richard Strauss' Zueignung was the encore. The seven finalists were all teeth and nerves as the announcement of the final winners was made: Sheppard, Katotakis, and Sy, with the latter also winning the Audience Choice Award. Music-lovers will be keeping eyes and ears on these three gentlemen, and the unfolding future of the Ensemble Studio too. Opera culture is truly coming alive in Canada.
The winners of this year s Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio singing competition (L-R): Aaron S...
The winners of this year's Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio singing competition (L-R): Aaron Sheppard, Dimitri Katotakis, COC General Manager Alexander Neef, and Charles Sy.
Michael Cooper
More about Canadian opera company, coc, Centre Stage, singing competition, Singing
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