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Baltimore Concert Opera brings out the applause meter for open auditions

I stopped by Baltimore Concert Opera's public auditions Tuesday evening -- the second of two nights in a row -- at the Engineers Club. Most opera auditions, of course, are held privately and, needless to say, do not include an applause meter. But this attempt at a Baltimore's-Got-Talent approach was meant to turn the process into more of a fun event by announcing that audience reaction would figure into hiring decisions by the young company, which presents un-staged operas at the club with piano accompaniment.

I have to say right upfront and unequivocally (to use a Sonia Sotomayor phrase from her first day of hearings) that something about this concept, and the execution of it, didn't quite feel right to me, but the modest crowd on hand Tuesday seemed to have a good time.

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I heard 11 singers; another six were scheduled after intermission (17 were on the program Monday). The quality varied, from the professional to the student-like (one participant's intonation troubles veered dangerously close to Florence Foster Jenkins territory), but almost everyone revealed sound musical instincts. I heard two stand-outs.

Soprano Leah Inger used her bright, clear voice, with its fast vibrato, to compelling effect in an aria from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The applause meter registered accordingly, and Baltimore Concert Opera's general director, baritone Brendan Cooke, called for more. Inger obliged with some stylish, if slightly less polished, Donizetti.

Also earning a two-aria shot was tenor Rolando Sanz, who gave impassioned accounts of popular Puccini and Massenet pieces. The very top range proved wanting, but the rest had considerable color and strength.

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I also enjoyed the confident, dynamic performance of Sempre libera by soprano Abla Lynn Hamza (she wasn't asked for more); and the vibrant work of soprano Natalie Conte, who wasn't always firmly on pitch, but exuded personality and style in Lehar and Puccini favorites.

Conte is currently onstage with Cooke in the Young Vic's Pirates of Penzance. A couple of other cast members from that production took part in the BCO auditions, including baritone Jason Buckwalter, who set the applause meter on fire. But the engaging singer did not actually produce enough solidity of tone, especially at the upper and lower ends, to warrant so much carrying on in the audience.

No question, though, about the reaction to the hard-working pianist, Jim Harp, a model accompanist for each performer. When he was given a solo bow, the meter moved quickly and decisively into the red.

PHOTO OF ROLANDO SANZ COURTESY OF ROLANDOSANZ.COM

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