Annapolis Opera’s 30th annual vocal competition provided a stellar field of young singers giving their all last Saturday and Sunday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
The event also served as a fitting tribute to one of its patrons and guiding forces: famed baritone and visionary voice teacher William B. Ray.
The prestigious competition draws applicants between ages 20 and 35. This year’s event attracted a field of 83 gifted singers vying for the highest-ever first prize — $5,000, contributed by more than 50 donors.
Leah Solat, former Annapolis Opera president and chair of the 30th anniversary competition, said the prize is “most definitely the highest award Annapolis Opera has ever given,” and noted that it also offered higher second-, third- and fourth-place awards, with with none under $1,000.
From the outset of planning, the anniversary celebration honored Ray’s illustrious operatic and concert career. The award to this year’s grand-prize recipient is dedicated in his name.
Now marking his 30th year with the Annapolis Opera’s Vocal Competition, Ray has always served as a competition judge or selected judges from among his opera-performing friends and music educators.
The 30th competition proved a worthy tribute to this artistic pioneer who charted his own operatic course.
Ray once left his native U.S. because he perceived that racism of the day would make an opera career impossible here. Instead, he forged a historic international career in Europe that included leading roles in "Il Tabarro,” "Rigoletto" and others, as well as a successful career in television.
He returned to the United States to teach voice at Peabody Conservatory and later at Howard University, then taught and served as mentor to many young singers.
For many years the vocal competition has been presented free to the public through a grant from the Helena Foundation, welcoming audiences to attend and hear fine young singers perform live on stage.
The competition is decided by three panels of judges. The first adjudicators, working without an audience, listened to electronic submissions identified only by applicant number and voice type, and selected 30 semifinalists.
On Saturday audiences enjoyed semifinalists’ performances live on stage, where a second panel of music educators and opera performers narrowing the number to eight finalists. These eight competed in the finals concert on Sunday before a third set of judges, and an enthusiastic near-capacity audience.
Foremost, the vocal competition is about singing, and all eight finalists seemed totally at home on the Maryland Hall concert stage.
The coveted first prize went to soprano Kylena Parks, who also won the $1,100 Audience Choice Award. Her singing choice, Meyerbeer’s aria “Toi que j’aime,” proved a truly transporting piece, in part because of its relative unfamiliarity.
The judges’ request for her — to sing Donizetti’s “Chacun le sait” from “Daughter of the Regiment” displayed her voice perfectly as Parks joyfully made the aria her own, embellished by lively dance moves and smart salutes.
Parks’ voice reflects a rare beauty, growing more beautiful in the upper register, and she navigated demanding passages with ease. Her commanding stage presence stems from boundless good nature and radiant smile.
Second prize of $3,500 — the Marie E. Crump Memorial Award of $2,500 plus the Director/Conductor Grand Prize Winner Award of $1,000 donated by Ronald Gretz and Braxton Peters — went to tenor Hyunho Cho, a native of Seoul, South Korea, who revealed a stunning tenor voice in his ardent delivery in Italian of Verdi’s “La pia maternal Mano” from “La Battaglia di Legnano.” The judges’ request, “Ah, leve-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” was sung in French.
The third prize of $2,000 — the William W. Watkins Memorial Award of $1,000 and the two Todd Duncan Memorial Awards of $500 each — went to bass-baritone Jarrod Lee, who displayed vocal artistry and versatility. Lee’s delivered the judges’ requested “Kennst du das Land” from Adamo’s “Little Women.” His version of “Knowest the land where the lemon trees bloom” touched this listener’s heart.
The Hughes Award 4th Prize winner, mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl, displayed a voice of enormous beauty and power that easily conveyed high drama and passion naturally expressed by de Gruyl, who seemed equally at home with her choice of aria and with the judges’ choice.
This competition was so enjoyable that most of the audience returned early from intermission, seemingly eager to discover what prize their favorites would win.
Lending a bright historic note to the proceedings, four winners of earlier competitions participated in the festivities headed, by baritone Grant Youngblood, winner of the first-ever Annapolis Opera competition in 1985.
Pianist Eileen Cornett summoned her usual magic to accompany every singer’s style throughout the live stage competition.
Everyone, including several prize winners below the top four — bass Andy Berry, baritone Rob McGinness, soprano Amy Broadbent and baritone Sunyeop Hwang — possessed voices of great beauty and power.
The music was enough to fill Maryland Hall, and the hearts of its audience.