Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: National Council Audition Grand Finals
Alexandria Shiner & Blake Denson Stand Out Among the WinnersBy Arya Roshanian
(Credit: Richard Termine)
One of the best parts about the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions is that it’s open to the public. But even more exciting than that is coming across a singer that makes an aria completely their own, so much so that it changes your interpretation of the music. Now that’s a star. And who else can say they were there when the next Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, or whichever “it” singer was discovered?
At this year’s National Council Auditions, held on Sunday, March 1, five winners were picked from a crop of nine finalists, from a myriad of winners from the District and Region auditions. There was a select few who possessed supreme talent, and others who manipulated their natural chops to give more striking performances.
That being said, winning isn’t a golden ticket to success. There are plenty of singers who’ve never managed to keep up momentum after their initial victories.
Met favorite Lisette Oropesa, who hosted the competition, is also a 2005 winner of the National Council Auditions. And if anyone knows what the competition can do for one’s career, it’s her. After winning at age 21, she took her time and worked hard to develop her instrument and became the best artist she could. She now sings regularly at almost every major opera house around the globe.
She recalled her first time singing on the Met stage during the semi-finals. She was nervous and excited, but as she says, “somehow not afraid.”
“The Met auditorium had such a warm and welcoming energy and I felt it embrace me,” she went on to say.
Conversely, some of opera’s biggest stars, like Ailyn Pérez and Joyce DiDonato, never got past the Regional round of the competition. They are proof that it’s not about the win itself — but rather what you do with that win.
This year, the prize was raised to $20,000 for each winner, and $10,000 for the remaining finalists. The boosted prize money is thanks to Oropesa, who donated $25,000 so that the winners could walk away with a little extra cash. They deserved it too. Each of the singers endured a grueling week of coachings, rehearsals, and nerves. The Grand Finals is not a culmination of just a week’s worth of hard work, but a lifetime’s worth. It’s a bucket list moment for these young artists, one that’s at the top of the list for most of them.
No pressure, right?
Each finalist presented two arias, decided between the singers and a panel of Met officials. Following the judges deliberation, Oropesa announced the five winners, which included sopranos Alexandria Shiner and Denis Vélez, mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag, tenor Jonah Hoskins, and baritone Blake Denson.
Soprano Alexandria Shiner, currently a Carfitz Young Artist with Washington National Opera, was the most polished of the winners, with a plush voice suited well for Wagner or Strauss.
She eased through “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser, but it wasn’t until her second aria — “To This We’ve Come” from Menotti’s “The Consul” — that her star quality emerged. Her voice is plush and was among the highlights of the afternoon, though it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she would win given that she is already cast as Berta in the Met Opera’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia” next season. This made her eligibility somewhat questionable, though there is no doubt Shiner was the only winner who felt ready for primetime.
Another winner, baritone Blake Denson, has some kinks to work out, but was the most promising of the quintet of winners.
He began with Rodrigue’s aria “Ah, je meurs, l‘âme joyeuse” from Verdi’s “Don Carlos (props to him for singing it in French as opposed to Italian), captivating the audience with his dramatic interpretation and striking upper register, which boomed to the back of the house.
His second choice, “Oh, Lawd Jesus, hear my prayer” from Gruenberg’s seldom-seen “The Emperor Jones” was just as exciting. Other opera companies have already caught on to his talent — Denson joins the prestigious Houston Grand Opera Studio during its 2020-21 season. If Denson plays his cards right, he could be en route to a successful career.
Tenor Jonah Hoskins, the only tenor of the winners, has a lot of natural talent. He is as earnest as a golden retriever, and that energy was perfectly channeled in “Ah! Mes amis” from Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment.” Hoskins is young — only 23-years-old — yet he managed to execute nine perfect High C’s. He even threw in two High D’s for good measure: one in the first aria, and another in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in the second half. With proper grooming, he could be ready for leading Rossini and Mozart roles in just a few years.
I wanted more energy and drama from soprano Denis Vélez, hailing from Puebla, Mexico. Her tone is pure and pleasant to the ear, but I found her interpretations of “Depuis le jour” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” lacked depth or nuance. Her performance, while certainly respectable, wasn’t as memorable as some of the other finalists. Vélez enters Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center in the fall, where she’ll hopefully iron out her creases over time.
The same can more or less be said for mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag. The voice is solid, with a grit that lends itself well to the kind of fuller, dramatic mezzo roles she’ll day one sing. Her second selection was better than her first, hamming it up for the Witch’s aria from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” (not to mention her precise German diction). But her first aria was unfulfilling. Her English diction could have been more articulate, but her high notes and choice voice were impressive. And after all, this competition is not necessarily about a finished product. It’s about career potential, which Beteag certainly has.
I would have liked to see Chasiti Lashay among the winners, as her warm, luscious soprano voice filled the house with magic. Appropriately, she sang “I Want Magic!” from Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” her English diction clean underneath the Southern dialect of Blanche DuBois.
Her presentation of “Io son l‘umile ancella” from “Adriana Lecouvreur” in the second half was equally as beautiful. Lashay is sensitive and graceful with her movements, careful not to give too much away. It left me wanting more, in the best way possible.
It was also surprising to see mezzo-soprano Lindsey Kate Brown excluded from the winner’s list. A current Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist, Brown possesses a uniquely dark timbre, reminiscent of Ewa Podleś. She has great control over her large instrument, which was showcased no finer than in “Sgombra è la sacra selva” from Bellini’s “Norma.” The aria, vulnerable and exposed, is hard to pull off as a young singer.
But along with a striking instrument, she’s also a committed actress. Her second aria “Da, chas nastal!” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans” may have been slightly overindulgent, but boring she is not.
Soprano Jana McIntyre, a native of Santa Barbara, Calif., was the only coloratura soprano of the bunch. With movie star looks and the poise to match, she has everything it takes to make it to the top. But it was an odd choice to present “O zittre nicht” as her first aria. Apart from a very questionable F6 at the end, she sang the aria well and emoted convincingly. But her tone was too sweet for the queen’s punishing music. The same could be said for her second aria, Ophélie’s Mad Scene from Thomas’ “Hamlet.” McIntyre is a great actress, but her voice sounded glassy at times and again pinched at the top.
Xiaomeng Zhang, a Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music graduate by way of Wenzhou, China, gave two consistent performances, but there was passion lacking behind his technically precise interpretations. His first presentation, “Hai già vinta la causa” from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” was solid, but he didn’t quite grasp the Count’s frustration or intensity. His second aria was better. In Mercutio’s “Mab, reine des mensonges” from Gounoud’s “Roméo et Juliette,” he allowed for a more playful, ardent demeanor.
As the judges deliberated, tenor and another Met favorite Javier Camarena performed for the audience. It was a rare treat to hear Camarena perform expressive, lyrical repertoire, as opposed to Rossian acrobatics. The arias in questions, “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” from “Roméo et Juliette” and “È la solita storia del pastore” from “L’Arlesiana, were a good distraction from the nerve-wracking decision process.
But the question remains: did the judges get it right? Only time will tell.