Vocal contest displays excellence, rich variety

Annapolis Opera's 13th annual vocal competition Sunday at Maryland Hall should have won a few converts to opera and the art of great singing. The contest offered a group of excellent young singers who delivered a rich variety of music.

All nine finalists were already winners, having emerged from more than 60 singers from Maryland and neighboring states during preliminary judging the weekend before.


In both competitions, each participant was required to sing two arias from a selection of four chosen in advance. After the contestant sang an aria of his or her choice, judges requested a second aria to display a contrast in style and language.

First prize is $2,000


Prizes ranged from a $2,000 first prize to several of at least $300. In addition to monetary awards, winners could be invited to appear in Annapolis opera productions.

Angela Fout, last year's winner, returns to Annapolis this spring as Fiordiligi in Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte."

Sunday's competition gave unusual prominence to lesser-known works by composers rarely heard in the standard opera-house repertoire. This 13th competition was also different in that not a single tenor or coloratura was included among the finalists. I'd have welcomed more than one Puccini aria and missed the dazzling coloratura fireworks and familiar tenor arias that previous competitions offered.

Still, there was much to enjoy in this program, which featured composers Jean-Baptiste Lully, Arrigo Boito, Benjamin Britten and Eric Wolfgang Korngold. And it is always a delight to discover fresh young voices.

One voice of stunning clarity and brightness belonged to Ann Scott, a soprano from Virginia Beach, Va., who sang Britten's "I'm full of happiness" so beautifully that I was, too. Scott did not place among the top four winners.

Flawless French

The grand prize, consisting of the $1,500 Grace Gelinas Clark Memorial Award and the $500 Director/Conductor Award, went to Tian Xu Zhou, a splendid baritone who teaches voice in Winchester, Va. Zhou conveyed a deep understanding of the arias selected and fine language skills. His French seemed flawless in "Avant de quitter ces heux" from Gounod's "Faust," and even more impressive was his intelligent enunciation of the Russian language in Onegin's Aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

Second-place winner was Baltimore mezzo-soprano Lori Hultgren, who has sung at Annapolis Opera concerts and will sing Dorabella this spring in "Cosi Fan Tutte." Hultgren delivered two arias usually associated with the soprano repertoire, a gorgeous "Depuis le jour" from Charpentier's "Louise" along with Micaela's aria from the third act of Bizet's "Carmen."


Winning third place was Kirsten Gunlogson of Pittsburgh, who possesses a large voice of impressive agility and a commanding stage presence. The charming mezzo-soprano easily met all the challenges of Richard Strauss's "Sein wit wieder gut" from "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Maturity evident

Baltimore bass Jason Hardy, who has been heard in oratorio with the Annapolis Chorale, placed fourth. Equally at home with arias as in oratorio, Hardy displayed acting skills in addition to a warm, resonant voice. In his choice of "Il faut passer" from Lully's "Alceste" and "Vi ravviso" from Belinni's "La Sonnambula," Hardy revealed a degree of maturity well beyond his years.

Accompanist JoAnn Kulesza deserved the enthusiastic applause she received for her sensitive accompaniment of each singer, despite what must have been minimal rehearsal time.

Because singers have improved over the years, the show might also be improved by tightening. Some of the time spent by judges in selecting is inherent in the process, but it is wearisome to the audience and painful to the singers.