Anthony Roth Costanzo '04 1st place co-winner of Operalia competition
By Ken Smith
June 12, 2012
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BEIJING – Even without their avian associations, “the Egg” looked a lot like “the Bird’s Nest” last week as 40 singers, ages 18 to 32, gathered at China’s National Center for the Performing Arts for Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. “This is like the Olympic Games for opera singers,” said Domingo Sunday night (June 10), driving home the sports reference before announcing the winners from the NCPA Opera House stage.
Now in its 20th year, Domingo’s contest for young vocalists has led a rather itinerant life, moving to different opera-loving cities annually (with Paris, Madrid, and Los Angeles as repeat hosts). This year’s iteration in Beijing marked the first time it had been in Asia since Tokyo in 1997. Both the quarterfinals on June 4 and 5 and semifinals on June 7 were all-day affairs with piano accompaniment; Sunday evening opened with a two-hour final round, with Domingo himself conducting singers with the NCPA Orchestra.
Not surprisingly, given the location, more than a quarter of the singers were Asian. And much like the 2008 Olympics, the finals provided clear evidence of China’s coming of age, with the evening’s concluding award count—after nearly an hour of deliberation—becoming a face-off between China and the U.S., and other countries chalking up the occasional notice. Rather unlike the Olympics—or Beijing, for that matter—were Operalia’s Audience Favorite awards for both male and female voices, a rare display of democratic voting in China.
American soprano Janai Brugger, a former member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and current second-year artist in Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, took home the female First Prizes for Vocalist and Zarzuela (narrowly edging out Cuban-born Maria Aleida, who held a distinct linguistic advantage). Brugger also claimed the Audience Favorite award in the female category.
Baritone Yunpeng Wang, a graduate of Beijing’s Central Conservatory and now a first-year student at Manhattan School of Music, garnered both the Zarzuela and Audience Favorite awards in the male category, as well as sharing Second Prize for Vocalist with American tenor Brian Jagde, another Merola alumnus (and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow). Jagde also won the Birgit Nilsson Prize for potential in Germanic repertory. (There was no Nilsson Prize awarded in the female category.)
Full-throated Russian vocalists took Third Prize in both the male and female categories, with baritone Roman Burdenko opening the evening with Leoncavallo’s opening aria from I Pagliacci. For her part, mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Karyazina powered through Rossini’s Cruda sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri with impressive agility.
Italian tenor Antonio Poli was cited with the competition’s Culturarte Prize, a bit of consolation for having fine vocal technique with little of the firepower or dramatic presence of the other winners. Soprano Guanqun Yu, a Shanghai Conservatory graduate now based in Italy, not only won Second Prize among female vocalists but was offered a role on the spot singing Verdi’s I Due Foscari in January with Domingo at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia (the company’s director Helga Schmidt was on the jury).
With eight of the 12 finalists being men, the male categories presented a significant dilemma. What to do, say, with singers as diverse as the single-named Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin and three-named American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo? Amartuvshin tore into Cortigiani, vil razza dannata from Rigoletto with Verdian assurance rarely encountered today, but was physically awkward. Costanzo, a recent Manhattan School graduate who has already appeared with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, cast a magical spell with Handel’s Stille Amare from Tolomeo, though the voice lay technically in the female register.
The answer, evidently, was to award them both First Prize, without splitting the $30,000 prize money (Second-Prize winners Wang and Jagde, both having won other awards on Sunday, shared the $20,000). A co-win, though, hardly describes Costanzo’s showing in the finals, which was acutely idiomatic without ostentation. Rather than pummeling listeners with virtuosity—he did that in the semifinals with another Handel aria—Costanzo instead went the quiet route. Never once, though, did he confuse hushed volume with lack of intensity. This was not just perfectly placed vocalism, it was edge-of-your-seat drama, the kind of high-voltage, high-register male singing that comes once in a generation.
Given the audience response, Costanzo was surely a close runner-up for the male-voice Audience Favorite award. He had my vote for best female voice as well.