Centre Stage 2018: a Night of Voices

There are several ways to watch the annual Centre Stage competition, when young singers vie for a series of awards while seeking places in the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio.

You can watch & listen to the competitors, eight young singers from across Canada.

You can watch & listen to the audience, sometimes including friends & supporters. What kind of applause are they offering? Who excited them the most? If you’re paying attention you can usually tell who will be the audience’s favorite, winning the Audience Choice award.

You can watch the judges. It’s easier if you’re fortunate to be invited to the opening segment, when one has a clear view. You might notice how unexpectedly vulnerable Alexander Neef is, moving his arms to conduct. He reminded me of myself when I was a child conducting Beethoven on the record player.


Alexander Neef (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

You see a softer conducting motion from Liz Upchurch but not for every singer. She sometimes leans forward, sometimes back, listening. Wendy Nielsen is back in her chair, attentive. But of course they’re all listening, sometimes making notes, sometimes peering at one another.

There are several different dramas being enacted, in a competition that can be understood in more than one way:

  • Who is the best singer?
  • Who is the best singing-actor? (who may or may not be the best singer)
  • Who is singing the hardest repertoire?
  • Who sounds best? (and is that accomplished by choosing something easy or difficult?)
  • Will my choice match that of the panel of judges?
  • Is my choice the same as that of the audience?
  • And of course, there’s the pleasure of listening to all those arias, all those talented young singers putting it all on the line.

To begin, Alexander Neef said hello, then handed things to the witty Ben Heppner for most of the evening.  We had a recent winner in Emily D’Angelo as the guest, performing while the votes were tallied & the judges discussed their choices backstage.   Then Neef came back near the end to announce winners.

Every singer had something to offer, something of value to contribute to the evening, although in a competition there can only be a few winners. I’m grateful that in addition to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes, plus the audience choice prize, CBC added a prize of a recorded concert to be broadcast on the network, which is surely a wonderful showcase for any singer lucky enough to get such an opportunity.  That prize turned into two prizes, meaning that there were six awards up for grabs.

One wonders, when the COC make their selections: are they primarily seeking the best singer, the best actor, or perhaps seeking the person who best fills their expectations for future casting needs? Because when the dust settles and we get into future seasons, the Ensemble Studio members play key roles.  For example, in a little video with which we began the evening, we met soprano Anna-Sophie Neher: who made a big impression on me in Hadrian. It’s possible that the winners are at least partly meant to fill spots in the company, irrespective of who might be the “best” in the competition.

For the COC’s competition first prize went to tenor Matthew Cairns, second to bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, and third to mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote.

The two CBC prizes went to soprano Andrea Lett and tenor Matthew Cairns.


Centre Stage Host Ben Heppner, Audience Choice Award and CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize winner Andrea Lett, and First Prize and CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize winner Matthew Cairns, Centre Stage 2018. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The audience favorite –that we voted on from devices attached to our seats—was Andrea Lett.

The COC Orchestra led by Johannes Debus sounded quite wonderful in their support of nine soloists (counting the guest) in a pair of arias, also including a performance of Bernstein’s Candide Overture to start us off.

The COC’s fall season concludes Saturday with Eugene Onegin, starring Gordon Bintner: a recent Ensemble Studio graduate and winner of the competition in November 2012.


Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin and Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Eugene Onegin, 2018, (photo: Michael Cooper)

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