COC Centre Stage 2014

Tonight was the fourth public competition for membership in the Canadian Opera Company’s Studio Ensemble.

I missed the first one in 2011.

The second was held in November 2012, in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, aka the space in the upper lobby of the Four Seasons Centre, where free noon-hour concerts are held with piano.

Almost exactly a year ago tonight we come to the third such contest, christened “Centre Stage”. The event was clearly growing, upgraded to the R. Fraser Elliott Hall accompanied by the COC orchestra led by Music Director Johannes Debus, rather than piano. Where the second was a fairly serious singing contest –think opera meets American Idol—the feel of Centre Stage (2013) was decidedly gala & glitz, complete with a rendition of “That’s Entertainment” from the orchestra and Rufus Wainwright as host. The event now had an important fund-raising dimension added (although maybe it was there in year 2 but I didn’t notice).

For 2014 the COC have taken a slightly serious turn, de-emphasizing the glitz and returning to more operatic values.  Oh it’s still a fund-raiser as well as a gala competition. But instead of Rufus’s singing we had three solos from someone only announced as a special guest, namely Adrianne Pieczonka, while the judges were off comparing score-cards.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean invests Ben Heppner as a Companion of the Order of Canada at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in 2010. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Ben Heppner was a very warm & witty host. His quip “now that’s how it’s done” after Pieczonka’s solos brought the house down. He anchored the presentation in the COC & its history, given his credibility as

  1. one of the biggest stars Canada has ever produced,
  2. coincidentally one of the greatest graduates of the Ensemble Studio and
  3. the current voice of opera on CBC radio.

I don’t see how they can improve on Heppner next year.   If they ask him to host again i don’t think anyone would be disappointed.  Nobody minded that Johnny Carson was a perennial host of the Academy Awards.

For 2014 the competition was even more concentrated, with seven finalists on the stage at the Four Seasons Centre, instead of the nine we heard last year and the ten in 2012:

  • Michelle Siemens mezzo-soprano with arias from Roberto Devereux and Le nozze di Figaro
  • Nathan Keoughan bass-baritone with arias from Il barbiere di Siviglia and Le nozze di Figaro
  • Zoe Band mezzo-soprano with arias from La clemenza di Tito and Vanessa
  • (first place) Charles Sy tenor with arias from Die Zauberflöte and L’elisir d’amore
  • (second place) Dimitri Katotakis baritone with arias from Le nozze di Figaro and Roméo et Juliette
  • (third place) Aaron Sheppard tenor with arias from Le roi d’Ys and Cosi fan tutte
  • Eliza Johnson soprano with arias from Idomeneo and Roméo et Juliette

Charles Sy was a popular winner, capturing the Audience Choice Award to go with his first prize.

Sy offers an answer to a question implicit in this competition, namely “what should i sing if i want to win?”  Some in the competition showed us their broad range, their versatility, challenging themselves in the process. My first impression of Sy, though, was simply “what a beautiful voice“.  Sy’s two arias show us what he can do, pure and simple, and what he does he does very well.  If there’s a lesson for anyone musing about what to sing at a future competition, first and foremost, figure out what repertoire shows off your voice to best advantage. This is not like one of those diving competitions where you get extra marks for “degree of difficulty”. If you’re singing something simple but singing it beautifully? I think you have a better chance of winning than if you select something off-beat or clever, no matter how brilliantly you sing it.

While I think Sy was a worthy winner, I have words of consolation to those who didn’t win, including some wonderful performances from people who came up empty. Centre Stage is a contest to select spots in the Ensemble Studio, and that means that you’re partly at the mercy of the luck of the draw. Some years there are holes in the ensemble needing to be filled, due to impending graduations from the existing Ensemble Studio. All seven singers had moments of excellence; they should all hold their heads high whatever the outcome.

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5 Responses to COC Centre Stage 2014

  1. Just men winners? That seems a little disappointing for the
    women…

    • barczablog says:

      No kidding! that’s why i said what i said at the conclusion (that it’s a contest influenced by the necessities of the company).

      But any singing contest is really a matter of apples and oranges, and i say that not as a matter of consolation but to speak truly. Even the two mezzo-sopranos were vastly different from one another, let alone a comparison between tenors or bass or soprano.

      While i expected Sy to win I expected one or two of the women to get some recognition. But every year there’s always at least one singer who surprises me (either in being ignored or getting recognition). In the end it’s a matter of taste, otherwise i’d have big bald spots from pulling my hair out of my head in frustration.

  2. Last year did a woman achieve a prize? Just curious….one continuously hears there are too many sopranos ( and I guess mezzos)…

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