BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
To have a shot at a professional career in opera, it has become standard practice for young singers to take part in one or more of the dozens of apprentice and pre-professional training programs at companies and festivals across the country.
LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO: Rising Stars in Concert
When: Radio broadcast, 7 p.m. March 22
Where: WFMT 98.7-FM
One of the more respected such programs is the 40-year-old Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, which can claim as alumni such noted artists as Nicole Cabell, Elizabeth Futral, Roger Honeywell, Amanda Majeski and Matthew Polenzani.
Lyric Opera showcased this season’s 13 participants (12 singers and a pianist) in its annual Rising Stars in Concert, a 2½-hour event (arguably a little overly long) Saturday evening at the Civic Opera House that was open to donors who made annual contributions of $75 or more. It will be broadcast at 7 p.m. March 22 on WFMT 98.7 FM.
The program featured a piano selection as well as arias and ensemble sections from a nice diversity of 16 operas (one had to be scratched because of illness) and a Broadway musical. The performances took place amid a few basic set pieces, including a few plants and a bench, which allowed for some rudimentary staging.
It’s a tall order for singers to thrust listeners into the middle of an opera with little context and still manage to convey a sense of the character and the moment, and, as expected, there were hits and misses.
While a few of the singers struggled with technique, including one forgettable aria with issues of intonation, most of the problems revolved around questionable choices of material or singers not connecting dramatically with what they were singing.
No doubt each audience member had his or her own favorites, but compelling cases can be made for these five standouts:
— Baritone Anthony Clark Evans was the first singer to leave a memorable impression, displaying an easy stage presence and fully embracing the Broadway idiom as he lit up Billy Bigelow’s Act 1 soliloquy from “Carousel.” He possesses an appealing, round voice with warmth and power.
— Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi displayed no shortage of star power as she showed two complementary sides of her artistry in a solo excerpt from Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and a light-hearted duet from Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.” She sings with impeccable technique and a seeming effortlessness and spontaneity that belies her age, making the most of her lovely, soft-edged but strong voice.
— Soprano Tracy Cantin is already a fully formed singer who has it all – agility, power and dazzling coloratura. She infused drama and urgency into the duet, ‘Soli noi siamo,” from Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” providing a fiery conclusion to the first half. And if that were not enough, she returned for a recitative and aria from Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” nailing them as well.
— Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba went head to head with Cantin as Duke Alfonso in the “Lucrezia Borgia” duet and more than held his own. He then came right back on the second half with a wonderfully animated take on the prologue to Alban Berg’s “Lulu” – an excerpt that was ideal for his expressive, resonant voice.
— Tenor Jonathan Johnson reveled in the zany comedy of “The Elixir of Love” and then returned to sing a love aria as the prince in Gioachino Rossini’s “Cinderella.” This self-confident singer, who has an agile voice with a pleasing upper register, was probably a bit more at home in the first role but he pulled them both off with aplomb.
Such a varied line-up of singers and repertoire was a challenge, but conductor Michael Christie provided solid, unflappable support in the pit. Music director of the Minnesota Opera since 2012 and a frequent guest conductor elsewhere, he certainly counts as a rising star as well.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.