Two years ago the Canadian Opera Company began experimenting with a public singing competition as the final part of the selection process for membership in the Ensemble Studio. In 2011 & 2012 the contests were held in the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium using piano accompaniment.
This year they’ve taken a quantum leap with Centre Stage, the COC Ensemble Studio Competition Gala. Instead of using a piano in the RBA, the singers stood on the Four Seasons Centre stage, accompanied by the COC Orchestra, conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus.
And perhaps the biggest change in tone was supplied by host Rufus Wainwright, who not only brought an informal star power to the proceedings, but even added a few songs. I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when Debus conducted “That’s Entertainment”, followed by two of Wainwright’s own compositions. The audience ate it up.
It wasn’t all pop music, however. First –in a portion of the evening before the audience arrived—each of the contestants sang an aria with orchestra in a near-empty hall. Then, after a break, the audience arrived for the gala informally hosted by Wainwright. I wish we had someone as unpretentious hosting the Oscars, as his looseness added a lot to the fun of the evening.
On the very night when “Dancing With the Stars” is about to choose its winner (and no I am not waiting with baited breath, although –hi Mom—I do know at least one person who is), we had some of the chemistry of reality TV with the help of modern technology. In addition to the competition, the audience were asked to vote for their favourite, and –what do you know—our winner was the same as the one chosen by the expert panel, namely Québecoise Karine Boucher. It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast in styles than what Boucher showed in her two selections. In the public portion of the competition Boucher sang an ornate aria from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, whereas her earlier piece was the luscious lute song from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.
Second place went to Kitchener-Waterloo native Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, while Brockville native Iain MacNeil placed third.
Yet all nine singers heard tonight were excellent. Johannes Debus & the COC Orchestra acquitted themselves wonderfully throughout. And as I write this some of the audience are still there enjoying a gala dinner.