George London Foundation presents a heartening show of young opera talent

Sat Feb 18, 2017 at 12:06 pm
Michelle Bradley received the , 2017 George London Award winner, Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Michelle Bradley received the George London-Leonie Rysanek Award at the George London Foundation Finals Friday night. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

The George London Foundation, the brainchild of the great Canadian-American bass-baritone, exists to support the careers of young opera singers. Every year it awards singers who make their way through a competition made up of public recitals. The Final, held Friday afternoon at the Morgan Library, was both a testament to the talent the Foundation has honed through the competition, and a deeply affecting listening experience.

The concert was an exhibition of exciting vocal talent, and also of intriguing taste and discernment on the part of this new generation of singers. It was no surprise that the selection of arias (one for each of the eighteen performers) included famous ones like “Porgi amor” and “Tombe degli avi miei.” What was unexpected was the ambition shown through choices like the mad scene from Peter Grimes—sung with riveting directness by tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven—excerpts from the contemporary operas like John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Flight by Jonathan Dove, and relative obscurities, like mezzo-soprano Evanna Lai’s tender rendition of “Things change, Jo,” from Mark Adamo’s Little Women. The reach for distinction, and the singers’ recognition of how these modern and contemporary arias fit into broader opera history, deepened the satisfactions of the vocalism.

All but one of the performances were technically and expressively accomplished, many were gripping, and the finest were stunning. The judges had the unfair task of picking five above all the others for the $10,000 top awards, but there were also three secondary awards, and each of the remaining ten singers received $1,000 (out of a total of $75,000 handed out).

Soprano Michelle Bradley won the George London-Leonie Rysanek Award, one of the top five, and she was easily the star of the day. With her gorgeous voice, rich, rounded, and violet colored, she sang Verdi’s “D’amor sull ali rosee” from Il Trovatore, and it was tremendous. Beyond the sheer beauty of her voice and her technical command, Bradley had clearly thought deeply about the music. The shape of her phrases distilled not only the character but the drama of the opera down to a musical essence.

There was considerable strength among the men, who made up ten of the finalists. Tenor Errin Duane Brooks sang “Siegmund heiß ich” form Die Walküre, and the strength, projection, and sheer excitement earned him the George London-Kirsten Flagstad Award for a potential Wagnerian singer. Will Liverman, baritone, also won one of the leading awards with his lovely, involved “Gregory’s Aria” from The Tsar’s Bride. Tenor Aaron Blake sang  the Tomb aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, and though he sounded slightly stiff and constrained at first, his voice and expression opened up to a beautiful, vibrant emotional fullness, which earned him one of the top honors.

Soprano Lara Secord-Haid won the special award for a Canadian singer with a musical and subtle “Lied der Lulu,” by Alban Berg, from his opera Lulu.

Also unexpected quality was that there were two countertenors among the finalists. At 22, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was the youngest in the finals, (and it was he who sang “Dawn, still darkness …” from Flight). Cohen’s voice had a prepubescent quality, which added to the intensity of his performance. Daniel Moody sang Oberon’s aria “I know a bank,” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (oddly, Britten and Gounod were the only composers represented twice). Moody was so inside the character that his singing seemed to come straight from the operatic stage.

A pair of arias from Gounod’s Faust provided two highlights of the concert. Tenor Jonas Hacker sang an affecting, sincere “Salut! demeure chaste et pure,” and bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum delivered a charismatic “Vous qui faites l’endormie,” relishing Mephistopheles’ devilish laugh.

Lauren Margison, a 24-year-old soprano, sang an elegant “Porgi amor,” idiomatic in the way she let the shape of Mozart’s music carry the expression. Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino’s “Connais-tu le pays,” from Mignon, was equally elegant, with a concentration on the musical line and the loveliness of her voice.

The baritone voices made up an exceptionally strong group. Shea Owens sang “Batter my heart” from Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and impressed with his expression while staying within the constraints of the music’s rhythms and phrases. The enormous power of the aria was focused through the deep warmth of his voice and the interpretive precision. Brian Vu sang “Kogda bi zhizn,” from Eugene Onegin, and the beauty of his voice carried the complex expression of Onegin’s feelings and social standing.

Craig Rutenberg did solid, yeoman’s work in the difficult task of accompanying 18 singers in different music. But it was the singers and the George London Foundation who provided the the dramatic and heartening music that made this such an impressive event, with the audience winners as well.

The George London Foundation presents two previous winners, tenor Paul Appleby and mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, in recital 4 p.m. March 4, at the Morgan Library.

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