Night and Day: Wednesday, March 22, 2006
McCammon Voice Competition Blog - Updated

By Kristian Lin

It’s Saturday, and I’ve just come straight from a screening of the Ice Age sequel in Grapevine Mills to listen to opera, performed by the singers at the final round of the McCammon Voice Competition. Tomorrow, I’ll probably be watching the Larry the Cable Guy movie. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my life.

Fellow Weekly scribe Leonard Eureka is at this performance as well, and you’ll hear his thoughts on the singers and this weekend’s production of La Bohème in this week’s paper.

After the announcement that Fort Worth Opera will go dark in 2006 and come back in May 2007 as a festival comes some remarks from the society matrons who are responsible for organizing the competition. Donna Dodson describes the semifinal round as “thrilling,” but her delivery is so flat that if I hadn’t been at those performances, I would have thought, “You lie!”

First up is Troy Cook. The format is different for the final round -- each singer still performs two arias, but instead of both in one shot, they all sing one aria in turn before the intermission and then come out after the break and sing another. Many of the performers are repeating arias that they did in the semis. Cook is no exception, doing both “Cruda funesta smania” and “Avant de quitter.” His baritone sounds substantially different in Bass Hall than it did in the smaller space at the Modern. There, his voice overwhelmed you. Here, it definitely registers, but it doesn’t blow out your eardrums. The situation winds up helping him, at least to my ears. I pay more attention to his sense of phrasing and detail, and notice that he does a great job shaping the lines on the latter aria. I wasn’t sure about him before, but now I like his stuff.

Elizabeth Bennett is, amazingly enough, in even better voice than she was in the semis. She repeats “Du bist der Lenz” and then performs “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Saint-Saëns’ Le Cid. Her soprano is big and beautiful, with those honey-glazed top notes, and it’s immensely pleasurable to hear. Unfortunately, I now hear her interpretive skills running into the shallows, especially in the second aria, where she never touches the piece’s bottomless despair. Still, these things can be learned, whereas a voice like hers can’t be created by any teaching program.

Ann McMahon Quintero repeats both “Mon coeur” and “In si barbera,” and I notice that she manages both the opulent sound in the first aria and the more astringent sound that she needs in the second one. (Why didn’t I notice that at the semis, when she performed both selections together?) She moves purposefully around the stage, and she negotiates the technical hurdles in the Rossini piece easily without drawing attention to them. I can’t help thinking I’d like to hear her in one of Rossini’s comic roles. I have no evidence that she can be funny, but that red wine-colored voice would fit La Cenerentola or L’Italiana in Algeri, at least in my head.

Dongwon Shin repeats both of his semifinal selections. I remain unimpressed with him after “Nessun dorma,” the phrasing in the piece is too drawn out. His “Celeste Aïda” finds him in better voice than at any previous point, and those high notes do a good job of filling the hall.

The crowd applauds. People are suckers for tenors -- he’s lucky to be the only one in the final round. I still don’t like that oddly produced voice of his.

More repeats: Jennifer Holloway again does “Sein wir wieder gut” and “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi” from Handel’s Serse. (See, I got the name of that aria after all.) She’s wearing a flattering indigo-colored dress, and she knocks out the high notes in the first aria, while crisply articulating the coloratura runs in the second, more so than in the semis. She goes about it all with an unrelenting seriousness of purpose, never cracking a smile while she’s singing. I’ve grown to like Grim Girl over the past two days. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate hearing her attempt something light and humorous, but it’s refreshing to see a contestant who’s not out to charm the judges, just to win them over by the force of sheer brilliance. That takes confidence. And she really is brilliant.

On the other hand, charm is the main weapon in Ailyn Pérez’ arsenal, and there’s nothing wrong with that. She reprises “No word from Tom” and then does “Je veux vivre,” the waltz from Gounod’s Romèo et Juliette. As was the case in the earlier round, her enunciation fades in and out.

She’s sharper musically on the former aria, but on the latter she trips over the waltz rhythm, pulling it this way and that to accentuate the high notes. Wrong move. She’s a one-dimensional opera singer, and though she does that one dimension reasonably well, the ceiling is evident.

Michael Todd Simpson is in better voice than Cook, the baritone who preceded him. In fact, he’s downright glorious at times as he repeats Silvio’s Aria from Pagliacci and then does “Billy in the Darbies.” His sense of phrasing is much more alert than it was in the semis. I’m puzzled, though, by his choice of the second item. It’s a beautiful piece of vocal writing by Britten, but it’s not a showpiece by any means, and that’s what you need for a contest like this, no?

Up next is Ava Pine, and my feelings about her have crystallized a bit since I wrote her up last Thursday. They do so further when she sings “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide. That same smile that she kept plastered on her face through the semi round is back for almost all of this song. Inappropriate! This is wrong for the character and her situation (a spoiled princess reduced to being a rich man’s kept woman), and it’s also wrong for the mood. The piece needs to be well-sung, but even more it needs to be funny, and that smile of hers kills the possibilities for humor. Furthermore, I can hear her losing steam as the number goes on (and since it comes from a work that was originally written for the Broadway stage, we can call it a number). This is understandable; it’s a long and physically draining piece, but it’s still a flaw. She loses some concentration during the coloratura passages in her reprise of “Da tempeste” as well. None of this fazes her cheering section, a sizable one since she’s a TCU graduate. When it’s all said and done, she’s pretty good, which only makes me wish all the more that she wouldn’t carry herself onstage like a junior-high-school drum majorette.

I’ve been waiting for Blythe Gaissert, but I’m saddened to discover that we won’t be seeing her Carmen again. She’s repeating “Give him this orchid,” but she’s adding on “Wie du warst,” Octavian’s morning song that opens Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. She’s wearing indigo, too, but it looks wrong with her red hair. Her tremendous stage presence is not lost in Bass Hall, though I’m not sure how it looked from the back row. Like before, I’m sitting fairly close, but “fairly close” is farther away in the Bass than it is in the Modern’s auditorium. I notice that her English diction is crisp even when she’s singing low and soft notes in the first piece. She has a pretty good feel for the Strauss, and I could definitely see her playing the male role of Octavian.

(Especially with her physique. I could trade breasts with her, and I’m a

guy.) I’m prepared for her to lose this competition, because neither of her selections are showpieces that’ll get the crowd behind her. As a complete artist, it’s no contest in my book. These other singers have the music, but she’s got both the music and the characters, and in the opera house, that’s what matters.

Weston Hurt concludes matters with a repeat of “Io morro” and the addition of “Largo al factotum,” which I’m sure he didn’t perform at the semis because the baritone preceding him had already done it. He doesn’t make nearly the impact that he did in the semis, which is puzzling. I can’t put my finger on any specific thing he’s doing wrong; his voice sounds fine, and the comic business in “Largo” isn’t excessive. He just sounds blanded out.

The concertgoers have been given ballots to vote for their favorite singer, which I have no problem with. But the organizers of the event ask for ballots during the intermission, when the singers have only performed one of their arias! How does this make sense? In fact, most of the audience members didn’t attend the semis, so even if they were to wait to vote until after the performances were done, they’d still be going on incomplete information. And even those of us who were at the semis aren’t getting the whole picture because the judges have heard the contestants sing in preliminary rounds that weren’t open to audiences.

So you see, we can’t argue too much with the judges’ picks. This isn’t like, say, the Oscars, where the performances on the screen are all that’s supposed to matter. None of this makes the voting procedure for the audience favorite any less absurd. Maybe it explains why I won’t get as incensed about the results here as I usually do about these things.

Anyway, something odd happens after the performances are done. The audience mills about in the lobby for about 10 minutes, then someone goes back into the hall, and it starts a stampede of people returning to their seats, figuring that the judges have come back with their decision. But they haven’t, so while everyone congregates in the auditorium, I hang out in the lobby for the next 20. Just after 4 p.m., the judges return with the results. There’s another round of speeches thanking various people, including accompanist Eric Malson (not as sharp today as he was during the marathon of the semis). When the time comes to give out the awards, Donna Dodson squeals “I’m so excited,” and normally I would make fun of this, but I let it slide because this is the first time any of the organizers have publicly expressed enthusiasm for what’s going on. (Sort of like Three 6 Mafia’s appearance at the

Oscars.) The 10 finalists come out onstage as a group and receive a well-deserved round of applause, even though a couple react like all the applause is just for them. In addition to awards for the top three finishers, there are discretionary awards for one female and one male singer, plus the audience award. Pine takes the audience favorite and female encouragement award, while Cook receives the one for male encouragement. Third place goes to Jennifer Holloway, which surprises me in a good way. Dongwon Shin takes second, which will add to the very long list of awards on his resume. (Leonard, who thinks more of his singing than I do, tells me he’s basically been living on competitions for the past couple of years.) Out of nowhere, first place goes to Michael Todd Simpson. Damn! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a big handsome man with a big handsome voice, and there’ll always be a place in opera for guys fitting that description. Still, there wasn’t any point in these last two days when I listened to him and thought, “This is our winner here.” Oh, well. On that note, we end things. These competitions are all about emerging talent, and I’ve heard quite a few singers whom I’d gladly pay to hear again in concert, on record, or in the opera house.

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading my reports on them, and maybe that some of you will follow these performers as they make their way through the opera world. ‘Til* *next time.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and a packed house of exactly 32 people have gathered at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to listen to the 10th McCammon Voice Competition. Seriously, it’s a sparse crowd, and while I may not be the youngest person in the crowd, I probably rank in the bottom 10 percent. This would ordinary inspire a jeremiad on how opera is having trouble attracting young audiences, but the preponderance of gray heads here is probably due to the scheduling of the event – it’s hard for people with jobs to take the day off and listen to a bunch of unproven opera singers. I guess I’m lucky that my job lets me do that, so I can write up this report for our web site. We have 23 singers to hear out, so after FW Opera director Darren Woods advises the crowd to turn off their cell phones, we begin.

First up is Andrew Garland, who will be singing Schaunard at Fort Worth Opera’s La Bohème this weekend. His first selection is from Britten’s Billy Budd, and with his muscular build, one could imagine him as the title character. He doffs his jacket (all the contestants are wearing business attire) and places his hands behind his back to sing the scene known as “Billy in the Darbies,” in which Billy is supposed to be in prison awaiting execution. The baritone’s English enunciation is a bit fuzzy – his vowels come out weird and his consonants are overdone. (I wonder if this is a function of where I’m sitting, in the sixth row, dead center. I’ll get too much if the singers are projecting to the back row, but I want to see their faces clearly.) Garland has an attractive voice, but his reading of the aria is dramatically flat. In the second half, though, he perks up, and his enunciation clears up, too. The second selections for all contestants are chosen by the judges from a predetermined list, and they want to hear him sing “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Garland’s more impressive here, though he strains to create a comic persona for the song. His high notes ring out easy and unforced.

Jennifer Root begins with “Tutte nel cor vi sento” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Her soprano easily fills the room, and she knows how to give the aria a sense of forward momentum. Her high notes wobble off-pitch, though, and while she tries to capture the piece’s troubled character (it’s the song of a woman who sees her chances of marrying the man she loves disintegrating), it doesn’t come off. The judges ask her for “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre, and though Wagner is a better fit for her temperament than Mozart, there are more high notes in the piece, which gives her even more trouble.

The next contestant is baritone Weston Hurt, a big, broad-shouldered guy with a full beard. (I remember reading a magazine article counseling aspiring singers on the pitfalls of auditioning, and its advice to baritones and basses was “Facial hair does not make you a better singer.”) Bearded or not, this guy has some game. His deluxe dark voice isn’t as handsome as Garland’s, but he has a very good sense of the long, flowing vocal lines in Verdi’s music as he sings “Io morro” from Don Carlo. His “Visions fugitives” is rendered in crystal-clear French, and he does a gorgeous job with the expansive refrain. After he’s done, the stragglers swell the audience to between 40 and 50. It’s too bad they missed this guy.

Soprano Rebecca Lynn Wascoe comes out in a smart-looking purple outfit and opens with “Song to the Moon” from Dvorák’s Rusalka, which is made to showcase an attractive voice, and it works well enough here. Less well is her second piece, Nedda’s aria from Pagliacci. This singer’s a bit too upscale to imagine as the trashy Nedda, but the bigger flaw is some acidic high notes. Here I notice Eric Malson, the pianist who accompanies all the singers. He does an unimpeachable job throughout the day, performing a wide variety of styles without drawing attention away from the singers, but he’s having a devil of a time turning his own pages. Someone needs to be up on stage doing that job for him.

Next up is countertenor Jason Abrams, who I assume isn’t related to Fort Worth Weekly freelancer Brian Abrams. (I asked Brian and received no comment.) Countertenors have enjoyed a vogue in the last 15 years or so, thanks to the movie Farinelli, a rise in productions of Baroque operas with roles formerly filled by castrati, and audiences who have grown more comfortable with seeing a man sing falsetto. Abrams is very thin with spiky black hair and a habit of pacing laterally across the stage as he sings, while lowering his chin and staring intensely at the audience. His voice is a rather thick and luxurious falsetto – he almost sounds like a female contralto singer. He achieves a nice disembodied pathos in his rendition of “Cara sposa” from Handel’s Rinaldo. The jury asks him for another Handel piece, from his English-language opera Serse. (The trouble with being a countertenor is that the repertoire for these voices isn’t very diverse – it’s mostly confined to the Baroque era.) Abrams does very well with these highly structured, repetitive pieces, and his technique is flawless.

Next up is Ann McMahon Quintero, a mezzo following a countertenor, and you can’t help but notice the similarities between their voices. She does “Mon coeur” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and though her French enunciation leaves some to be desired, she has a keen technique herself, with some excellent low notes. The aria shows her to be a fundamentally even-keeled singer, but she does a fine job with “In si barbera” from Rossini’s Semiramide, conveying the piece’s emotions while handling the roulades and trills well.

Baritone Troy Cook begins with “Cruda, funesta smania” from Lucia di Lammermoor and displays a huge voice that grabs your attention and fairly pings off the auditorium walls. It’s not just that his voice can easily cut through an orchestra at full blast – he knows how to use that voice, too. The Donizetti aria allows him to be pointed without interrupting the music’s flow, and he displays good (not great, but good) touch with “Avant de quitter” from Gounod’s Faust and its long, lyrical lines.

The last singer in this morning’s session is Ailyn (she pronounces it like “Eileen”) Pérez, who performs “No word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and “Prendi” from L’elisir d’amore. She displays the same qualities in both pieces, holding your attention from moment to moment, but never quite shaping them into cohesive dramatic wholes. Her enunciation (English in the first aria, Italian in the second) fades in and out, but she handles the technical hurdles well enough. Through it all she displays a sweetness that’ll serve her well when it comes to getting work – light sopranos like her usually get cast in nice-girl roles.

We take a 10-minute break before the next seven singers come out. We reconvene at 11:55, badly behind schedule. A soprano with a Jane Austen heroine’s name, Elizabeth Bennett, comes out and sings the second version of “Du bist der Lenz” and blows Root’s version out of the water. Her vocal production and German enunciation are better, but the main thing is her huge voice, which could easily take on Verdi’s or Wagner’s biggest roles, but it’s lighter in color than you usually hear with these voices. So extraordinary is this instrument that we can forgive a couple of fluffed high notes in her version of “Pace, pace mio Dio!” from La forza del Destino.

Next is Dong-won Shin, the first of four Korean singers we’ll hear. (The opera world regularly buzzes with the groundswell of talent coming from China, but Korea has its own tradition of musical theater that makes it easy for singers to shift to Western opera. And the Koreans beat the Chinese in producing the first international opera star, coloratura soprano Sumi Jo.) Shin is a short, stocky guy with longish hair, and he looks like a Korean version of Jack Black. His repertoire is all straight from the heart of the Italian repertoire, and we wind up hearing “Nessun dorma” and “Celeste Aïda.” His tenor is large enough for the pieces and dark enough to be interesting, but the sound is dry and his interpretations aren’t that interesting. His low notes are quite good, though. Perhaps he should switch to baritone?

He’s followed by fellow Korean Jae-eun Paik, a petite woman (as opposed to the generously proportioned women who have preceded her) with long, flowing black hair. Her voice is small and focused, and it’s something of a relief to hear a finesse singer like her after all the dreadnaught-class voices that have come before her. She chooses “Non piú mesta” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and this technical showpiece becomes a dazzling display in her hands (vocal cords?). Her voice has the distinctive bite of Italian mezzos, which makes the piece a great fit. She takes off her jacket for “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” from Werther, and though her rendition of this lamenting aria isn’t that interesting in itself, it’s enough of a contrast to the former piece to be worth the inclusion. Her French isn’t as idiomatic as her Italian, but it’s still understandable.

Mark McCrory is next, and his bass voice is always under control (to a fault, it turns out) throughout a piece from Verdi’s Macbeth and “Hear me, O Lord!” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. The Verdi is fine and brooding, but the Floyd aria, a prayer for forgiveness from a preacher who has raped a woman, isn’t nearly as tormented and self-flagellating as it should be. This aria has become a great showpiece for bass singers, but McCrory doesn’t get near its explosive power.

The best performance of the semifinal round comes from Blythe Gaissert. A slender woman with short, copper-colored hair, she doesn’t command the room when she walks in, but when the music for the Seguidilla from Carmen starts up, she doesn’t just play Carmen. She is Carmen, a fully-formed character, a sly, pouty, insinuating version of the Gypsy. Whoa. Seriously, whoa. I look at her and I know Don José is in a world of trouble with this girl. This is the one performance that I immediately want to see on the stage. As a follow-up, she transforms (not as vividly but effectively enough) into Britten’s tragic heroine in The Rape of Lucretia, a Roman senator’s wife angrily rejecting romantic overtures from the man who raped her in “Give him this orchid.” What a presence this singer has! (And she’s local, too, sort of. I didn’t find this out until later, but she studied at Texas Wesleyan.)

The last two singers before lunch are French-Canadian mezzo Majorie Poirier and soprano Caprice Corona, whose name sounds like a couple of car models. The former does “Sein wir wieder gut” from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and “Acerba voluta” from Adrianna Lecouvreur, but though her voice is attractive and has some power, she’s a rather bland interpreter. The latter produces a more restrained version of “Pace, pace mio Dio!” than Bennett’s, but she can’t turn that into a strength. Her aria lacks color, as does her version of “Porgi amor” from Le Nozze di Figaro, although Mozart looks to be more her speed than Verdi.

After lunch, Jennifer Holloway takes the stage, and, man, this tall brunette in a long red coat is an intense one. Her mezzo is a very flexible instrument; you could tell me she’s a soprano and I wouldn’t blink. She starts with a worthy version of “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” and then shifts into next gear with a Handel aria. (Sorry, it wasn’t listed on the program and the judges didn’t identify it by name.) Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she demonstrates formidable technique and a great feel for Handel’s milieu, plus a laser-like focus that has the audience on the edge of their seats.

She’s followed by Michael Todd Simpson and his silky, high-lying baritone voice. Unfortunately, he gives little sense of character or different musical styles in his undistinguished renditions of Silvio’s aria from Pagliacci and the Count’s aria from Le Nozze di Figaro. Nathan De’Shon Myers’ baritone voice is even lighter than Simpson’s, and he comes off much better. His “Largo al factotum” is self-assured (he takes several optional high notes), and his comic persona comes much more naturally than it does to Garland. He can’t match Cook’s version of “Avant de quitter” for power, though he has a bit more touch.

This competition wouldn’t be complete without a complete wreck, and soprano Lori Lind is unfortunately the one here. It sounds like she’s having a really bad voice day in “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il Trovatore and “Depuis le jour” from Louise. Her low notes aren’t too bad, but her small voice turns acid on top. Furthermore, her Italian enunciation has some weird vowels: “L’amor” comes out as a Gallicized “L’amour.” She’s the one contestant I find myself wanting to get to the end as quickly as possible.

The second African-American contestant (after Myers), Margaurite Mathis Clark comes out in a fetching light blue dress and cornrows. Her soprano is a rich, heavy instrument, almost a mezzo, and she demonstrates a sound grasp of character as Liú in “Tu che di giel” from Turandot, and as a fidgety, exasperated Countess in “Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro. Her musicianship is such that I overlook her heavy vibrato and a few odd vowels.

The next singer is Kwang-kyu Lee, a bespectacled man who’s rather short for a bass. What a bass it is, though, an instrument that shakes the floor. He sings “Ella giammai m’amo” from Don Carlo, and though he’s a bit fuzzy on the small details, he has a decent understanding of Verdian singing. The music flows well. “Vous qui faites” from Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust seems to be a better match for his personality, though. This lewd ballad that Mephistopheles sings to a girl in her bed brings out his mischievous side, as he punctuates the sung laughter in the aria. It’s a sparkly, humorous reading, and the burst of wicked laughter over the coda draws similar laughs from the audience.

Tenor Seung-wook Ryu starts off well with “Come un bel dì di Maggio” from Andrea Chénier, his sunny voice fitting the role’s heroic dimensions and the Italian style. The climactic outburst is glorious; wish he had built up to it more. The second selection is “Outside this house” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, and immediately it’s clear that including it in his repertoire is a mistake. His English enunciation is a total mess, and the aria falls apart solely because of that.

The last contestant is Ava Pine (first name pronounced Ah-va), a brunette with a yellow top and a pixie haircut. This soprano clearly knows she can sing and doesn’t mind showing it off, as she does a terrific version of “Da tempeste” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, sailing through a difficult aria and smiling the whole way through. She does the same thing through the Gavotte from Massenet’s Manon, and the attitude would be wearisome if she didn’t carry off these showpieces with such flair.

We wait half an hour, and then they’re ready to announce the 10 finalists who’ll compete on Saturday afternoon at Bass Hall. They are Hurt, Quintero, Cook, Pérez, Bennett, Shin, Gaissert, Holloway, Simpson, and Pine. I’m bummed for Paik, who deserved a spot in the finals and would have been a good alternative to the big voices. Gaissert’s name is announced last, so I’m feeling the outrage building up in my spleen, only to have it turn to, “Oh, well that’s good, then.” Enough of my picks made the finals that the event should be interesting for me. Hope to see you there.

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