Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Remembering Howard Hook Jr. - Founder of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions

As I was taking a look at Sunday’s Playbill for the Grand Finals, I was reminded that the 2014 Grand Finals Concert will be dedicated to the memory of Howard J. Hook Jr.  Mr. Hook died in December 2013 at the age of 88 after dedicating more than sixty years to the Metropolitan Opera and the National Council Auditions.  He received the Met's Verdi Medal in 1982 to honor him for these contributions.

He was Chairman of the National Council Auditions (read the National Council History here) from 1954 (when he founded the organization) until 1968 and he became Honorary National Chairman of the Regional Auditions in 1972.  At the age of 33 he was the youngest person ever elected to the Metropolitan Opera Board, a position he held from 1958 to 2009.

Howard Hook Jr. was born in 1925 in Pittsburgh.  It was his grandmother who first introduced him to music, taking him to Bayreuth when he was seven years old to hear Toscanini conduct Wagner's 'Tannhauser.'  He lived with his grandparents in Switzerland until the start of WWII, when he returned to the US and went to Princeton to earn a degree in Political Science.
"Music," he said, "is the one great international language. It cuts across every kind of man-made barrier. Performers reach the people in a way politicians can't. And they're the best possible ambassadors for their country."
So when he graduated from Princeton, he decided on a change of careers:
"Grandmother died when I was 19. I'd grown up loving music and singing, and I did have a voice. I decided to go to Zurich and train to be an opera singer. Yes, I did receive an inheritance, but I'd have gone anyway. There were great hopes for my future, but as I've said, my nerves beat me.  So I took off to Italy. I decided I'd just study. I didn't have to perform. So I studied under Tito Roffo, a wonderful old man, and also studied painting at the University of Florence."
So instead of being on stage himself, Mr. Hook decided to dedicate his life to furthering the careers of other young opera singers.
"I'd always been interested in the Metropolitan Opera House, and I soon became engrossed in schemes to create a greater awareness of the Met as a national institution. What was needed was a project which would touch people not usually interested in opera, something with which people throughout the country could identify."    
Since 1935 the Met had been holding an annual vocal competition called the Auditions of the Air, but William Marshall, the program's Director in 1950, noticed that singers from the New York area were dominating the competition.  One explanation for this was that singers had to pay for their own travel to and from New York if they wanted to compete (it was just as expensive to be an opera singer back then as it is today).  It so happened that Mrs. Belmont had created the Metropolitan Opera National Council in 1952 in order to garner national support and interest for the Met, and this is where Howard  Hook saw an opportunity.

Because of the National Council a network of volunteers and opera lovers was already available throughout the country when he took a map of the US and Canada in 1954 and divided the country up in 16 Regions.  He traveled to 60 cities within those Regions and set up committees in each of them to hold local auditions.
"I spoke to literally thousands of people, and that made me just as terrified as singing in public! In fact, even now, the longest walk in the world is the one I take every year from the wings to the centre of the stage to give a speech after the audition finals.”  
From the start Mr. Hook saw the National Council Auditions on an international level.  For example, he traveled to Australia in 1968 to attend the District Auditions there, which were part of the Pan-Pacific Region.
"Our idea is that after study and experience abroad the singers go home and give their own country the benefit of their training.”  
In 1968, Regional winners were send to New York for a week (all expenses paid) to compete in the Semi-Finals.  The winners each received $2,000 which they used to study (wherever they chose) for the Finals which were held seven months later.  The Finalists then competed for a Metropolitan Opera contract and a cash prize of $2,500.

Throughout the years the National Council Auditions have evolved from an international competition to a national one, and Metropolitan Opera contracts are no longer awarded after the Finals.  Instead, many singers are invited to join the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program which was established in 1980 by James Levine.  Award money has also grown considerably with the help of generous donors throughout the country, but other than that not much has changed.  The auditions are still run by volunteers (many of whom are National Council members), and the country is still divided up into Districts and Regions to make it possible for singers to audition wherever they may live.

Howard Hook Jr. may not have seen himself as a salesman when he was younger, but throughout the years he definitely became a "traveling salesman for culture."  He made the National Council Auditions into what they are today, and without him hundreds of artists would not have had the career they had because of the National Council Auditions.  As soprano Jessye Norman, winner of the Auditions in 1968, said ten years ago at a gala honoring Howard Hook Jr.: "The principal result of my association with Howard Hook and the Met Opera Auditions was that of much-needed moral support and financial assistance."


"He Plays Godfather to Young Singers" by Kay Keavn Ey - The Australian Women's Weekly April 10, 1968 

New York Times Obituary December 17, 2013

Playbill Grand Finals Concert March 30, 2014

Princeton Alumni Weekly April 2, 2014 

Central Opera Service Bulletin January - February 1969

"Opera soprano star Jessye Norman recalls her early support" by Robert Croan - Pittsburgh Post Gazette - January 17, 2004

Friday, January 17, 2014

Region Finals 2014

Scott Russell, Felicia Moore, John Kapusta, Lacey-Jo Benter, Pureum Jo, Takaoki Onishi and Viktor Antipenko
Moving on to the Semi-Finals 
($3500 each)

Viktor Antipenko - Tenor Age 29
John Kapusta - Tenor Age 26
Scott Russell - Bass Age 29

2nd Place 

Pureum Jo - Soprano Age 24

3rd Place 

Takaoki Onishi - Baritone Age 28

Jeannette Rohatyn Great Promise Award 

Lacey-Jo Benter - Mezzo Soprano Age 26

Harold Bruder Award 

Felicia Moore - Soprano Age 25

Congratulations to everyone and thank you to all our donors who enabled us to give these wonderful awards to our winners.
If you would like to stay informed about the Eastern Region and its upcoming events, sign up here to receive our newsletter.

Our panel of judges: Nicholas Russell, Gayletha Nichols and Thomas Bagwell

Committee Member Tom Cannon Jr. and Eastern Region Chair Lara Marcon

Auditions Director Stefanie Van Steelandt

Sheila Carroll and Felicia Moore awaiting their audition in the green room

Scott Russell

Takaoki Onishi and Lacey-Jo Benter

Brian Michael Moore

Paul Han

Kyle Oliver

Brian Vu

Raquel González

Pureum Jo

District Winners 2013: Scott Russell, Sheila Carroll, Kyle Oliver, Brian Vu, Felicia Moore, Paul Han, John Kapusta, Raquel González, Lacey-Jo Benter, Pureum Jo, Takaoki Onishi, Brian Michael Moore, Robert Balonek and Viktor Antipenko

Region Finals 2014 Winners: Scott Russell, Felicia Moore, John Kapusta, Lacey-Jo Benter, Takaoki Onishi and Viktor Antipenko

The Eastern Region Winners Scott Russell, John Kapusta and Viktor Antipenko

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Meet the Judges: Nicholas G Russell

Nicholas G Russell
Director of Artistic Operations, Boston Lyric Opera

Nicholas Russell is Director of Artistic Operations for Boston Lyric Opera, a post he has held since December 2008.  In this position he is responsible for implementing the repertoire plans of the Company, including casting and production development, as well as its Emerging Artists.  This follows ten years in a similar position at Glimmerglass Opera. Prior to Glimmerglass, he was Assistant to the Director, Frank Dunlop, at the Edinburgh International Festival as well as Artists Manager for Scottish Opera.

At Glimmerglass Mr. Russell administered the company’s acclaimed Young American Artists Program.  Additionally, he was Project Coordinator for the Emmy-nominated production Central Park, co-commissioned between Glimmerglass Opera, New York City Opera and Thirteen/WNET, as well as the Grammy-nominated recording of The Mines of Sulphur for Chandos.

As an adjudicator, he has participated on panels for The Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition, The Dallas Opera and The Richard Tucker Foundation. At conferences and seminars, he has made presentations for OPERA America, the National Opera Association and The Auditions Project.

Nicholas Russell is an American citizen, having been born in Glasgow, Scotland; he has an MA Honors degree from the University of Glasgow in French and Music.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Meet the Judges: Thomas Bagwell

Called by Marilyn Horne, "A pioneer for his age," Thomas Bagwell is well known as a pianist in song recital and chamber music.  His appearances as a collaborative pianist have taken him to such venues as New York's Carnegie Hall, London's Wigmore Hall, the  Musikverein, the Concertgebouw, and numerous halls across the United  States , Canada, Puerto Rico, and Japan. 

Thomas Bagwell's activities as a coach and teacher have led to invitations to give masterclasses for colleges and apprentice programs in opera companies. He is an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and the Washington  National Opera, the Santa Fe Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.     

Thomas Bagwell has partnered in recital such singers as Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Frederica Von Stade, Andrea Rost, Kristine Jepson, James Morris, Roberta Peters and Lucine Amara. His recital partnerships with the rising generation of singers include Elaine Alvarez, Eric Cutler,Gregory Turay, Rinat Shaham, Thomas Meglioranza and Jesse Blumberg. 

In the field of chamber music, Mr. Bagwell has been a participant at the Marlboro Music Festival and has performed recitals with violinists Midori, Miranda Cuckson and Scott St. John, with whom he made a critically acclaimed CD, now available on itunes, of works by Antonin Dvorak on the Marquis Classics label. Miranda Cuckson and Mr. Bagwell performed the ten Beethoven Sonatas for  violin and piano in a three part series at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in the spring of 2009.   

Thomas Bagwell has received degrees from the Mannes College of  Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and has studied with Warren Jones, Graham Johnson, and Edna Golandsky. After his formal studies, Mr. Bagwell pursued additional training with Elly Ameling and Rudolf Jansen at the Academie Villecroze. Mr. Bagwell organized and performed several concert series' in New York at the Austrian Cultural Forum including the complete songs of Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler, surveys of Schubert, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, in additions to many other concerts.  He was co-artistic director for an Austrian Lieder festival in Washington D.C. at the Austrian Embassy, where he has performed many times.         

His recent performances have included recitals sponsored by the Lotte Lehmann Foundation, of which he is an advisory board member, featuring young singers hand picked by the Foundation for their abilities as recitalists, and a series of performances and recording of a new collection of American art song called "Five Borough Songbook" with such composers as Tom Cipullo, Chris Berg, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jorge Martin and many others. Other recent performances include a concert at the Kennedy Center with soprano Elaine Alvarez, sponsored by the Vocal Arts Society, a recital of songs and piano pieces by Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel in New York (including two world premieres),and a recital with internationally known soprano Renee Fleming at the State Department in Washington, D.C. for Hillary Clinton. Other collaborations with Renee Fleming have included preparing her for performance of Messiaen's nine part song cycle, "Poemes pour Mi," with the New York Philharmonic, Andrew Previn's "Streetcar Named Desire" and the recent world premiere of Anders Hillborg's "The Strand Settings."  

Mr. Bagwell  spearheaded the 20th anniversary performance of the AIDS Quilt Songbook on December 1, World AIDS Day, 2012 and his since repeated the cycle in Philadelphia. As a teacher of opera and art song, Thomas Bagwell has been on the faculty of Yale University , and currently teaches at the Mannes College of Music where he teaches collaborative piano as well as classes for singers in operatic repertoire and German Lieder. He has taught masterclasses at the Santa  Fe Opera, New Jersey Opera, Simpson College , Portland State University and was the keynote teacher at the Oregon chapter of NATS at the Lewis and Clark College in January 2008. He is a regular faculty member of the CoOPERAtive summer opera program in Princeton, New Jersey.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Meet the District Winners 2014: Scott Russell

Scott Russell
Age 29

Aria choices for the region Finals (subject to change)

1. O tu Palermo! - I Vespri Siciliani - Verdi
2. Come dal ciel precipita - Macbeth - Verdi
3. Sì, tra I ceppi - Berenice - Handel
4. Si la rigueur et la vengeance - La Juive - Halévy
5. Hear me O Lord - Susannah - Floyd

Opera Idols: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Scott Russell: I spent most of my childhood in Roanoke Virginia before leaving for college. I spent some time in Washington D.C. before moving to New York. I have a B.M. from Shenandoah University and I'm currently completing my M.M. from Manhattan School of Music.

OI: When did you know you wanted to become an opera singer?
SR: I started college as a Biology major. My junior year I started a voice minor because medical school might like it. It was then that I experienced opera for the first time and the voice faculty suggested I pursue it as a career.

OI: On the day of the auditions, do you have any rituals you follow?
SR: On audition days I try to be as rested and calm as possible. I typically do gentle warm ups at least a couple hours before.

OI: Do you have a favorite opera, aria or composer?  Do you have any 'role models' in the opera world?
SR: My favorite composer is Verdi. I really love all the Verdi bass roles.

OI: What would your dream role be?
SR: King Phillip in Don Carlos.

OI: What upcoming performances do you have?
SR: Commendatore with Merola this summer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Meet the District Winners 2014: Sheila Carroll

Sheila Carroll
Age 27

Aria choices for the Region Finals (subject to change)

1. Non mi dir - Don Giovanni - Mozart
2. Non so le tetre immagini - Il Corsaro - Verdi
3. Depuis le jour - Louise - Charpentier
4. I want Magic! - A Streetcar named Desire - Previn
5. Song to the Moon - Rusalka -Dvorák

Opera Idols: Tell us a little bit about yourself

Sheila Carroll: I am from a small town in central Pennsylvania called Lock Haven. I did my Bachelor's at Westminster Choir College and my Master's Degree at Manhattan School of Music and have lived in Manhattan since, a little over four years now! I also attended Juilliard Pre-college when I was in high school, and that was a formative experience for me as a musician and singer. My first full role was Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. I've also sung Donna Anna, First Lady, Pallas Athena (Ecccles' Judgment of Paris), and Lady Billows. 

OI: When did you know you wanted to become an opera singer?

SC: When I was in elementary school I loved singing in the children's choir, so I also joined the choir in middle and high school. My parents loved musical theater and took us to see shows growing up, and we loved it too. I first came to opera through 'crossover' musical theater and artists, but once I heard opera and started studying my first art songs and arias with my first voice teacher at age 14, I never looked back. I loved the music and the poetry and I knew my voice was meant for it. It may sound strange, but though I wished then to belt out show tunes, my voice was naturally suited to opera. When I started listening to opera, I was so amazed by the music and the things these singers could do with their voices. The first opera album I was ever given was a catalog of Kirsten Flagstad's early recordings and I played it until it wouldn't play anymore!

OI: How will you be preparing for the Regionals in the next few weeks?  On the day of the auditions, do you have any rituals you follow?

SC: I will be taking voice lessons and coachings and generally trying to keep my routine the same. I will probably be more vigilant about getting good, regular exercise and sleep. As much as I love to socialize, singing and vocal rest are the perfect excuses to indulge my homebody tendencies. And like many singers, in winter rely on my humidifier, a warm scarf (or two) and a good cup of hot tea. In the week leading up to the audition I will be on a family vacation in Florida enjoying the sunshine. I'll have to be careful about having too much fun, but I'm lucky I'll be able to relax (I hope)!
On the day of, I don't have any rituals per se, but in high pressure situations like this competition, I try to concentrate on small tasks rather than live in the nervousness and anticipation of the event. When it comes down to it, my goal is to enjoy performing and do the best I can do. If I walk off the stage and feel like I had fun and gave a good representation of myself as a singer, then I'm happy. 

OI: Do you have a favorite opera, aria or composer?  Do you have any 'role models' in the opera world?

SC: It's so hard to choose favorites! I am a huge Mozart fan in general and I also love Puccini, Verdi and Rossini. My favorite opera is Le Nozze di Figaro and my favorite aria is La mamma morta. I know so many singers whose incredible talents I look up to! I love Kiri Te Kanawa, Mirella Freni, Montserrat Caballe, Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, to name a few. I am also a huge Stephanie Blythe fan and lucky for me she often performs in New York. I've seen her sing full productions of Wagner and Handel operas in the same week with stunning singing, drama and style!

OI: What would your dream role be?

SC: It was always a dream of mine to sing Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, and two years ago I finally got to do it. It was my first full length role with orchestra, and it certainly was a dream come true. Going forward, there are so many! One day, I would love to sing Manon in Puccini's Manon Lescaut. I would also love to sing Blanche in Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire and Vanessa in Barber's Vanessa.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Meet the District Winners 2014: Felicia Moore

Photo by Kristin Hoebermann
Felicia Moore
Age 25

Aria choices for the Region Finals (subject to change)

1.  Non mi dir – Don Giovanni – Mozart
2.  Einsam in trüben Tagen – Lohengrin- Wagner
3.  Do not utter a word – Vanessa – Barber
4.  Morrò, ma prima in grazia – Un ballo in maschera – Verdi
5.  Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux – Le Cid - Massenet

Opera Idols: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Felicia Moore: I was born and raised in Princeton, NJ, where I stayed for my Bachelor’s at Westminster Choir College. I completed my Master’s in the spring at Mannes College, and now I’m in the process of getting my Artist Diploma at Mannes, studying with Ruth Falcon.

To name some repertoire that’s been on my mind lately…I just performed in Mannes’ production of Il Viaggio a Reims, as Madama Cortese, and this coming summer I’ll be at Opera Theatre of St. Louis as a Gerdine Young Artist, covering Christine Brewer as Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites and covering First Lady in The Magic Flute. It’s really exciting music, and I can’t wait!!

OI: When did you know you wanted to become an opera singer?

FM: I always loved to sing, but had a hard time finding my “niche,” as far as genre. I started taking voice lessons when I was 15, which was about the age when I realized everyone else’s favorite class wasn’t choir like mine. I figured I should follow my gut and apply to conservatories for college, and the rest is history!

Einsam in trüben Tagen at Crested Butte Music Festival's Gala
with Maestro David Stern and the CBMF Orchestra
OI: How will you be preparing for the Regionals in the next few weeks?  On the day of the auditions, do you have any rituals you follow?

FM: I suppose I’ll be preparing like most of the other singers. Lots of rest, focus, and yoga!  One thing I always do before performances or important auditions is text my mom. I know, I know, I’m 25!! I’m too old to be doing that! But I just love that she still tells me to “Have fun!” And it always has been!

OI: Do you have a favorite opera, aria or composer?  Do you have any 'role models' in the opera world?

FM: I remember answering this for my interview last year, and I said Le nozze di FigaroLohengrin, and Un ballo in maschera….and it’s still true!! They are still my all time favorites.

A definite role model in the opera world is Joyce DiDonato. She is such a giving artist, and I really look up to her and the work she does. I had the pleasure of singing in a masterclass for her this past summer at Crested Butte Music Festival, and I’m thrilled to say she is just as kind and humble as she is in all her interviews and video blogs!

OI: What would your dream role be?
As Madama Cortese in Mannes Opera's
Il Viaggio a Reims (photo by Eugenia Ames)

FM: My big dream role is Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Besides the fact that the music is absolutely stunning, I think she’s one of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered so far in opera. It would be an honor to portray her and her story one day. 

OI: What upcoming performances do you have?

FM: The Opera Index Gala to honor Rosalind Elias on January 12th and performing Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at the Mannes Opera Scenes on April 11th.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Meet the Encouragement Award Winners 2014: Joshua Arky

Joshua Arky
Age 23

Opera Idols: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Joshua Arky: I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Science at Columbia University last May. I have not yet attended a conservatory for a Master's degree. The only role I have sung in a full operatic production was Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro with Opera on the Avalon. I have several upcoming engagements that I am very excited about. I will be covering Sarastro with the New York Opera Exchange in February, singing Collatinus with the Green Mountain Opera Festival in June, and singing Zuniga in Carmen with the Aspen Music Festival in July and August. 

OI: When did you know you wanted to become an opera singer?  Do you come from a musical family?

JA: I don't come from a traditionally musical family. My father cannot read music. My mother was in some musicals when she was in high school, but never pursued music beyond then. But we always had classical music playing in the house, and since I was young we attended orchestra and chamber concerts, and some operas, too. It was in high school when my sister, Rachel, and I began to be interested in singing opera. We both went to a small school called Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, where a man named Peter Clark taught a class in classical singing. Peter referred students that took a great interest in singing to his teacher, Fred Martell. To this day, my sister and I study with Fred, who has shown us this truly incredible world of art.

In college, in a bit of a fit, I quit singing cold turkey. In short, I felt I needed to save the world in my own little way, and that singing wasn't saving the world. I switched my studies at school from music to environmental science, and more or less shut classical music and opera out of my life. But seven or eight months into life without opera, I started to yearn for it, deeply. I missed singing and music and opera in a way I didn't know I could. I think it was then that I realized I needed to be an opera singer. I couldn't and cannot live without it. Singing is both physical and emotional. Music really becomes part of us as singers--our bodies are engaged so intrinsically in the process of making this art that it is as if it leaves a kind of imprint on us. I couldn't ignore the wonderful fulfillment of making, listening to and loving music. 

OI: Do you have a favorite opera, aria or composer?  Do you have any 'role models' in the opera world?

JA: I love Le nozze. Favorites are hard to choose, but this is the first that comes to mind. To me, it's a complete opera, with some of the most stunning musical play and drama. It's nothing new, and I'm sure a million have said it before, but the Act II finale is mind boggling.

I have my short list of opera idols that I adore, the ones I always turn to on a rainy day. There are the great basses (to whom I am a bit biased): Cesare Siepi, George London, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. These three I return to constantly with a kind of stupid glee. And outside of the bass realm, I adore Freni, Cappuccilli, Bastianini, Simionato, Sutherland, Nilsson, and anything Franco Corelli touches.

OI: What would your dream role be?

JA: Olin Blitch.