Competitions for aspiring opera singers are increasingly popular public affairs; they even attract audiences outside of the usual suspects (ahem, blue-hairs and opera queens). That's because for crash-and-burn aria victims, highwire vocal acrobatics and an always-entertaining and unusually tacky parade of gowns, the Met Opera Oregon district competition (held last Sunday, Oct. 15, at Portland State University's Lincoln Hall) is especially matchless. And at $7 a head for a nearly four-hour operatic orgy, it's some of the most entertaining classical bang for your buck all year.
Portland Opera Guild president Jutta Allen calls this competition, which can mean mega-exposure for singers under 35, "the American Idol of opera." That may not be untrue, for good reasons and for bad.
The good news first: Of the 10 first-half competing singers this writer saw and heard, one powerhouse soprano out-larynxed them all—the supremely angelic Angela Meade. This Philadelphia-born lady's got big pipes, real instincts and a sincerity onstage that seems almost incongruent with her enormous potential for diva status. Unfortunately, Meade is not much of an actress, and that could be the one detriment to her achieving major success on an international scale.
And the bad? Well, several of the competitors had clearly ravaged the sales racks at Nordstrom for their coloratura couture, and it was painful to hear some of the young ones struggle through arias years beyond their vocal maturity. Stage presence was scarce, and few of the singers even attempted anything as complex as characterization; most struggled with just getting the notes out.
Inevitably there were unintentionally hysterical highlights: Jasmine Presson (latterly of the Too Much Coffee Man Opera debacle) throwing her arms up in an Evita-like pose to cap a wobbly "Cruda Sorte" (from L'Italiana in Algeri); baritone Christopher Clayton's buffo histrionics in an aria from Falstaff; and Natalie Gunn, outfitted in red spangles from tip to toe, literally saluting the audience in a chirpy-peppy "Salut À la France" from La Fille du RÉgiment.
Of the other first-half contenders, smoky-voiced mezzo Valery Saul and doe-eyed soprano Megan Hart both made promising showings. Awards (and $2,000's worth of prize money) went to Meade and Hart, baritone Gregory Carroll (Des Moines, Iowa) and tenor Heath Rush (Beaverton), who now move on to the Northwest Regional Auditions this February in Seattle. Reality TV never sounded so sweet.