Christopher Petruccelli brought tears to Lillian Dermer's eyes yesterday at The Mall in Columbia.
Mr. Petruccelli won the ninth annual Bel Canto Opera Competition with his renditions of "Una furtiva lagrima" from the opera "L'Elisir," and "Che gelida manina" from "La Boheme."
"It was just so beautiful," said Mrs. Dermer, a spectator at the unlikely site. "He was controlled, he knew when to sing loud. I think he compared in a most positive way" to professional opera singers like Placido Domingo.
The winner, a 31-year-old College Park resident, is among eight North American singers who will study for six weeks this summer at Northwestern University in Chicago under the supervision of Maestro Georgio Tozzi, a well-known Italian-American bass-baritone and professor of voice and opera at Indiana University.
"It feels great," Mr. Petruccelli said after the 1 1/2 -hour competition, which featured six contestants. "I've been plugging away at it for a long time." Mr. Petruccelli said he has been studying opera since he was 18 years old.
In between voice lessons, he sings with "every little opera company" in the Baltimore-Washington and Virginia area.
The competition is open to any North American singer between the ages of 23 and 35 with a high level of performance ability and experience.
Sponsored by The Bel Canto Foundation and The Rouse Co. since 1987, the competition is held in eight Rouse Company shopping centers throughout the United States between March and May.
One winner is chosen from each site and receives a full $4,000 scholarship to the Bel Canto Italian Opera Seminar from June 27 through Aug. 7.
Mr. Petruccelli said winning the competition will temporarily ease the financial burden of paying for expensive voice lessons.
"The struggle has mostly been a financial one," he said of his ambitions to become a full time professional opera singer. "It's going to be wonderful not worrying about paying for $50 voice lessons."
The Baltimore-Washington regional contest attracted 16 singers.
Fourteen semifinalists were chosen based on demonstration tapes they sent to a panel of judges.
Two judges rated yesterday's six finalists on their voice, physical appearance, language clarity and solid operatic preparation.
"We're looking for the best combination of all those qualities," said judge Elizabeth Fischer Monastero, national singer coordinator of the Bel Canto Foundation of Chicago. Also judging the contest was Kenneth Meltzer, opera consultant for WBJC-FM and co-producer and co-host of Operafest.
Previous winners have signed recording contracts and performed at major opera companies such as Vienna State Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Lille Opera in France and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The contest attracted opera fans of all shapes and sizes and ages to The Mall's Center Court Stage.
"This is nice," said 7-year-old Jamil Hill, who said he had heard an opera presentation about two weeks ago during an assembly at Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia's Wilde Lake village.
Suellen S. Weisberg, community events coordinator for The Mall, said that even in the unorthodox setting, the competition offers Howard County residents a chance to enjoy opera in their own back yard.
"In Howard County, we have to go outside to the Baltimore-Washington area," Ms. Weisberg said. "This is really a great opportunity for these young singers."