Seven young vocalists look to make names for themselves at the Canadian Opera Company's annual singing competition.
It’s been called the “Canadian Idol of the opera world,” and it returns today for a fourth annual instalment.
Seven singers are lined up to belt out at this year’s Ensemble Studio Competition Gala, hosted by the Canadian Opera Company. Formally known as Centre Stage, the competition gives young Canadian singers the chance to strut their stuff on the grand stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in front of a large audience.
This year’s host is renowned tenor (and now radio host) Ben Heppner. The show will feature an interactive audience element, plus a a surprise guest and a fancy onstage post-concert dinner (at $1,500 a plate). The COC is also offering special $35 tickets to the concert for patrons aged 16 to 29—part of an effort to attract young people to the opera.
Inspired by the Houston Grand Opera’s annual singing competition, COC general director Alexander Neef conceived of Centre Stage in 2011 as a way of showcasing his company’s Ensemble Studio. It was originally held in the intimate Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, although Neef had always envisioned the event taking place in the main auditorium.
“We thought, ‘Let’s try it once or twice in the amphitheatre, and if it gets some traction, we can make it bigger,’” he recalls. Soloists performed with piano accompaniment before an audience of roughly 200.
That’s the sort of atmosphere past winner Jean-Phillippe Fortier-Lazure, a tenor from Kitchener, had been expecting when he first tried out for the competition. “When I did the audition, I was under impression it would be for a small group, not with orchestra and 900 people there,” he says. “But that made it exciting.”
Fortier-Lazure and his fellow winners, soprano Karine Boucher and baritone Iain MacNeil, were later invited to join the COC’s Ensemble, an intensive training program that lasts one to three years and offers aspiring singers specialized training from experienced opera professionals. Students also tour, perform in concerts, and take part in mainstage performances.
Ben Heppner himself is a graduate of the Ensemble. Known for his roles in Richard Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde and Benjamin Britten’s tragic Peter Grimes (both of which he performed with the COC in 2013), Heppner, who recently retired from the stage, thinks the competition is a good test.
“It really clarifies things,” he says, “whether somebody can handle pressure. This is a good way to do it—it may even be their first time with an orchestra.”
Heppner took part in four singing competitions during his career, including the now-defunct CBC Talent Festival in 1979 and the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 1988. He believes Canada was overdue to have a celebrated singing competition of its own.
“We’re missing these competitions in Canada,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of these places that can win you some money and some notice. And essentially, what you’re looking for is notice.” He credits his winning the Met Opera competition for much of his own success. “It launched my career,” he says.
Fortier-Lazure agrees that singing competitions offer aspiring singers vital exposure, and can even provide a confidence boost. “The fact you get up to that point and can say, ‘Okay I’m in the top nine’—I think it means a lot,” Fortier-Lazure says. “It puts people on the radar.”
That’s the goal with Centre Stage. Neef says the competition offers “great exposure, whether you’re a finalist and you get into the group or not. That’s a very important thing to launch their career—the most important thing is to get your name out.”
Centre Stage has become not only a major fundraiser for the COC, but also a major opportunity for the company to attract new audiences. Age-restricted $35 tickets put the event within reach of young people curious about opera—a demographic the COC is particularly keen to draw in. “I think it’s really important for us to get deeper roots in the community,” Neef explains, “and an event like the gala can help give people access who might be afraid of seeing a full opera. It gives them a full idea of how dynamic it actually is.”
The Centre Stage audition list grows every year as the event gains wider recognition. Of the seven singers selected to perform at this year’s event (from a pool of 175), three are from outside the province and four are from Ontario, with three of those coming from Toronto. Last year, nine finalists were chosen (from a pool of 155), of whom five came from outside Ontario, and none were Toronto natives.
When people think of well-known Canadian singers, they may recall famed tenor Jon Vickers (awarded a scholarship in 1950 to study opera at the Royal Conservatory of Music) or Teresa Stratus (who co-won the Met Opera’s National Council Auditions in 1959). Both had to leave Canada in order to pursue their careers.
Centre Stage, says Heppner, is eliminating that necessity. “I think we’re in that age where people from all over the country are coming to Toronto and making a name for themselves,” he says. “This is the place to be.”