Best Of 2021: OperaWire’s Top 10 Rising Stars Of 2021

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Fay Fox/Jaclyn Simpson/Lynn Lane)

It’s been a tough 2021. After some hope settled into the opera world with the reopening of most companies around the globe, the end of the year seemed to revert to what we saw for much of 2020 – more lockdowns, more COVID, more cancelations.

But despite what seems like a dark ending to the year, there was much light and it came in the form of some rising young stars. Whether it be in competitions, festivals, or in some major productions, these artists distinguished themselves as some of the most exciting of the coming generation.

So without further ado, here are OperaWire’s 10 rising stars for 2021 (in no particular order).

Claire Barnett-Jones

The English mezzo-soprano studied at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Academy Opera, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama and later became an English National Opera Harewood Artist and was a recipient of the Sir John Tomlinson Fellowship, Independent Opera Fellow, and Samling Artist. A winner of multiple competitions, Barnett-Jones competed in the Final Rounds of the Operalia Competition and won the Wagner Prize of the Netherlands and the Junior Jury Prize at the 52nd International Vocal Competition’s Hertogenbosch, among others.

Throughout her career, she has sung at the English National Opera, Last Night of the Proms, Wigmore Hall, Oper Frankfurt, and Edinburgh Festival, and Glyndebourne Festival.

In 2021, Barnett-Jones garnered worldwide attention when she became a Finalist and Winner of the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021. She followed that up in a highly anticipated production of “The Valkyrie” at the English National Opera. There is no doubt audiences will be hearing about Barnett-Jones in the next years as she continues to expand her repertoire and get major assignments.

Vasilisa Berzhanskaya

Russian mezzo-soprano Vasilisa Berzhanskaya studied at the Stavropol Territorial Musical College and the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. At the start of her career, she sang as a soprano and her repertoire included the Queen of the Night in “Die Zauberflöte,” Musetta in “La bohème,” and the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs.” However she eventually switched to the mezzo voice and from 2015 to 2017, she was a member of the Youth Opera Program at the Bolshoi Theater of Russia. During her time with the Bolshoi Theatre, she took part in the Rossini Opera Academy in Pesaro.

In 2017, she became a member of the Salzburg Festival’s Young Artists Program. That same year she became a member of the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she remained until 2019.

Jump two years and Berzhanskaya has become a household name in the bel canto repertoire. During the 2021 Rossini Opera Festival, the mezzo performed the role of Sinaïde in “Moïse et Pharaon” and instantly stole the show with her aria “Ah, d’une tendre mère.” As noted by OperaWire, “the audience rightly thundered out prolonged applause for what was a dazzling vocal display.” Following an epic summer, Berzhanskaya headlined a major production of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” jumping in for an indisposed colleague, and audiences worldwide were able to see her Rosina as it was recorded and streamed.

Sara Blanch

At the age of 14, the Spanish soprano began singing and two years later, at 16, she made her first appearance in a contemporary opera at the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya. A graduate in Singing and Interpretation at the Liceu Conservatory of Barcelona, she made her operatic debut in 2013 at the Rossini Opera Festival, playing the role of Folleville in “Il Viaggio a Reims.”

For the next years she would win several competitions like the Concurs Internacional de Cant Montserrat Caballé, the Josep Mirabent i Magrans de Sitges, and Tenor Viñas. With a promising career, the soprano has already performed 27 roles and has sung at such major theaters as the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Teatro Real, the Teatro de la Zarzuela, and Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

But it was this past that the summer garnered international attention with her performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Teatro Massimo di Palermo, which was streamed worldwide. Critics raved noting she has “an impeccable legato, a genuine thrill, and impressive breath control that allows her to spin seemingly endless lines.”

The soprano followed this production with a return to the Gran Teatre del Liceu and a debut at the Donizetti Opera Festival where she performed “La Fille du Regiment” to great acclaim with OperaWire noting “she sang with supported legato lines and pitch-perfect staccato high notes.”

Nicholas Brownlee

American bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee has slowly been making a name for himself in the opera world since winning first prize at the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, winning the Zarzuela prize at Operalia, and winning the grand prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

He is also a recipient of the 2016 Sara Tucker Study Grant and the 2017 Richard Tucker Career Grant. From 2014-17, he was a member of LA Opera’s young artist program and later became an ensemble at Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe where he has performed in new productions and sang leading roles in a diverse repertoire.

During the 2020-21 season, he became a member of the Oper Frankfurt, and this season he is set to perform numerous role debuts in such works as “King Roger,” “Fedora,” and “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

Outside of his ensemble work, Brownlee has performed at such houses as the LA Opera, Israeli Opera, Dallas Opera, and Atlanta Opera. He has also performed at the Metropolitan Opera and this season the bass-baritone had a big break performing his first leading role at the New York house. OperaWire noted that Brownlee’s Colline had “a very firm and round sound that projected quite well into the orchestra.” After his leading turn, there is no doubt that Brownlee will be a frequent guest soloist at the Met in future seasons.

Will Liverman

Since concluding his tenure at the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2015, Will Liverman has slowly been garnering the attention of the opera world. In 2020 he was the recipient of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award and in 2019 he won the Richard Tucker Career Grant and Sphinx Medal of Excellence. He has also received the 3Arts Award, a George London Award, and was recognized as a classical division Luminarts Fellow by the Luminarts Cultural Foundation.

He has performed at many of the leading opera houses in the world including Seattle Opera, Opera Philadelphia, English National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Opera, where he made history as the first-ever Black Papageno for the company. He has also performed in the company’s production of “Akhnaten.”

In 2020 Liverman made his solo debut album with “Whither must I wander” and later followed it up in 2021 with “Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers,” which garnered him a Grammy Nomination for Best Classical Vocal Album.

The baritone then became the center of the opera world when he headlined the Met’s 2021-2022 season opener in the historical production of “Fire Shut up in My Bones.” OperaWire noted that Liverman gave a “nuanced portrait of Charles, allowing us to see his journey from innocence to deep trauma and back to healing.” This is just the beginning of an important career for Liverman, who is headlining productions this season at the Lyric of Chicago, and the Dallas Opera and has already been announced to headline the Met’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Malcolm X)” in 2023.

Iván Ayón-Rivas

Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón-Rivas studied at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Lima and later perfected his artistry in Italy under the guidance of Roberto Servile. Over the years the tenor has won major prizes in competitions including the Peruvian National competition for Opera Singers and the Concorso Internazionale di Canto “Premio Etta Limiti.” He has also performed in many of the great Italian theaters including the Teatro Regio di Torino, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Teatro La Fenice, Teatro Massimo di Palermo, and the Macerata Opera Festival. OperaWire raved about the tenor when he performed in a production of Verdi’s “Un Giorno di Regno” in which it stated that he “delivered with a high level of quality.”

This past October the tenor rose to fame when he won the first prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Ayón-Rivas was such a favorite of the competition that he also won the Audience Prize and the Zarzuela Prize. The tenor has a great future in front of him and he will end his year by making his Teatro alla Scala debut during the opening night performance which will be streamed worldwide giving him more visibility.

Victoria Karkacheva

Rising star Victoria Karkacheva is an alumna of the prestigious Young Artist Programme at the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia where she has appeared in numerous productions. The mezzo-soprano has since toured extensively with the Bolshoi and sung in France and at the Kennedy Center. Recently she made her role debut as Judith in a new production of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Opéra de Lyon which was recorded and broadcast by Medici TV and for which she received rave reviews. In 2019 she appeared at the Verbier Festival and in 2020 she won the Viñas Competition in Spain.

And in October 2021, the mezzo competed at the Operalia Competition where she won First Prize and the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Following her major win, Karkacheva is set for debuts at the Bayerische Staatsoper in lead roles in new productions, as well as at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro Real Madrid, and Teatro Comunale di Bologna.

Mané Galoyan

Armenian soprano Galoyan has become one of the opera world’s most intriguing young singers. A graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, she holds two degrees from the Yerevan State Komitas Conservatory in Armenia, where she was named the 2013 winner of the President of the Republic of Armenia Youth Prize.

Over the past few years, she has won the First Prize of the 27th Eleanor McCollum Competition and Concert of Arias with Houston Grand Opera. She also took prizes at the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition, the sixth International Vocal Competition China in Ningbo, and the 2017 Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, among others.

A current member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, she has performed a variety of repertoire from Verdi to Mozart to Rossini. She has also performed at the Opernhaus Zürich, Houston Grand Opera, and Metropolitan Opera. This season she made an unexpected debut at the Paris Opera when she took over a performance of “L’Elisir d’Amore” and cemented herself as a promising young voice.

And that same month Galoyan took Operalia by storm winning second place at the competition as well as the Zarzuela Prize and the Rolex Audience Prize.

Gihoon Kim

Born in Gokseong, a small town with few opportunities for musical education, Kim was first introduced to music with K-pop. However, he soon discovered classical music and would secretly imitate the singers he saw on TV. At the age of 18 he sang as a bass in the church choir and soon went to Yonsei University Seoul, where he studied with the recognized singer Kim Kwan-dong.

He later received a scholarship at the Junge Oper Hannover where he became a member and went to win Second Prize and the Audience Prize at Operalia 2019 and the Second Prize at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition.

He would go on to be invited to sing at The San Diego Opera, Korea National Opera, and Glyndebourne Festival.

However, this past summer, he was named BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021 with critics noting “Gihoon Kim rose highest with a velvet baritone capable of inspiring tears and awe.” With so many awards and attention, Kim is ready for the next level and has a series of exciting debuts at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Dallas Opera, and Washington National Opera.

Serena Sáenz

Spanish soprano Serena Sáenz began singing at the age of 12 in a children’s choir and later went on to the Liceu Conservatoire in Barcelona. She later made her postgraduate at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. In 2018, she was awarded both the Mozart Prize and the Accademia Chigiana di Siena Prize at the Viñas International Singing Contest in Barcelona. She went on to win major prizes in Austria and France.

In 2019, she became a member of the Staatsoper Berlin International Opera Studio, and she was due to sing Papagena when at short notice she was asked to jump in as Pamina for the opening night of Yuval Sharon’s production of “Die Zauberflöte,” scoring great reviews. With the company, she has sung in productions of “Carmen,” “Siegfried,” and “Don Giovanni.”

This past season Saenz made an earlier than expected debut at the Gran Teatre del Liceu when she took over a production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The press and audience went wild for summer cementing her status as a talent to watch. Following the surprising evening, Saenz went on to win the Concurso de Canto Montserrat Caballé where she received a special mention by the audience, the Liceu, and the Festival Castell de Peralada.

This season is a major one filled with returns to Berlin, Barcelona, and Oviedo in numerous lead roles.


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