Canadian Takes Opera Prize


A 26-year-old soprano from Canada took the top prize at Operalia 2000 on Tuesday evening at UCLA's Royce Hall. Isabel Bayrakdarian emerged from an astonishingly strong field of 41 singers, ages 19 to 30, in sole possession of first place and its $50,000 award in the world opera competition organized by Placido Domingo.

Second place in the contest was shared by 28-year-old Chinese soprano He Hui and 23-year-old Russian tenor Daniil Shtoda. Each takes home $25,000. The third prize was also a tie, with $15,000 going to 29-year-old Ukrainian tenor Konstyantyn Andreyev and to Canadian bass Robert Pomokov, at 19 the youngest entrant.

The eighth annual running of Operalia was held in Los Angeles to coincide with Domingo's first season as artistic director of Los Angeles Opera, which opened Wednesday night at the Performing Arts Center. The competition is underwritten by Alberto Vilar, the billionaire opera patron who has recently joined the Los Angeles Opera board, and the prizes are named for him.

"Amazing," Bayrakdarian said backstage. "I'm very surprised. I have never seen this high a level in any competition; each one of us had a chance to win. I'm an engineer, so I'll be very logical about how I spend the money--except on shoes!"

Born in Lebanon, raised in Toronto and holding a degree in biomedical engineering, Bayrakdarian is also a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Award. She has already performed with the Canada Opera Company and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she has forthcoming engagements in Europe at the Opera de Montepellier and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. A supremely elegant singer with lyric agility and dramatic warmth, Bayrakdarian sang the bel canto showpiece "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Rossini's "Semiramide," with Domingo conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as he did for all 14 finalists.


Bayrakdarian also shared in a five-way tie for zarzuela singing, with each winner awarded $5,000. Zarzuela is the Spanish national form of musical theater; Domingo's parents ran a zarzuela company, and he has made the form its own category at his competition from the outset. The other four zarzuela winners are 26-year-old Armenian baritone Arnold Kocharyan, 24-year-old Argentine soprano Virginia Tola, 28-year-old Russian baritone Andrei Breous and Ukrainian tenor Andreyev.

There was also a "People's Choice" award, voted on by the audience at Royce Hall and listeners to the live radio broadcast on KMZT-FM, who voted via e-mail on the Operalia Web site. That $10,000 prize went to Tola, as did an additional Operalia 2000 prize of $10,000, awarded by local opera patron Lloyd Rigler to the singer of his choice. Each of the 14 finalists not receiving one of the other awards, including Americans baritone Kyle Ketelsen and L.A. Opera resident-artist tenor Bruce Sledge, takes home a $5,000 award just for making it into the finals.

All of the 41 contestants arrived in Los Angeles with their expenses paid. They each prepared four arias for the competition. During the preliminary rounds Thursday and Friday, each singer began with an aria of his or her choice, followed by one the 11-member jury requested. At the semifinal round, Sunday, the panel asked the singers for one of the other two arias. For the final round, the repertory was chosen in consultation with Domingo, to avoid duplication and ensure that music was available for the rehearsal with the orchestra.


The judging was done on a point system, with Domingo working as a sort of moderator. "We try to do it all on a numerical basis to keep it objective, but there is some subjective discussion in the case of ties and other factors," said one of the judges, Edward Purrington, artistic administrator for Washington Opera, where Domingo is also artistic director.

The process seems to favor consistency and to eliminate extremes of voice type, production and interpretation, although Purrington demurred on this issue, pointing out that there were still some unique voices in the finals. The judges considered the singers' performances in the preliminaries while evaluating the semifinal round, and Domingo said that the 14 who passed to the finals were the same 14 who topped the preliminary scoring.

The other judges, in addition to Purrington, were Jean-Pierre Brossman, general director of the Thea^tre du Cha^telet in Paris; Juan Cambreleng Roca, general director of the Teatro Real in Madrid; Thierry Fouquet, general director of the Grand Thea^tre in Bordeaux; stage director Michael Hampe, administrator of the Dresden Music Festival; American diva Marilyn Horne; Peter Katona, artistic administrator of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Gerardo Kleinburg, general director of the National Opera Company in Mexico; Canadian writer Harvey Sachs; Helga Schmidt, director of the new Palacio de las Artes in Valencia, Spain; and Eva Wagner Pasquier, artistic consultant to the Metropolitan Opera and the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Representatives of other opera companies and management agents were in the audience for the early rounds as well. With this concentration of talent and administrators, the competition between rounds also had all the makings of a job fair, with deal-making and discussions going on backstage, including some between contestants and members of the jury.

"It should not have any effect on either the singers or the judges," said Purrington, who was himself discussing availability with two of the artists. Given the level of the singers and the number of companies represented, it is probably not surprising that there are already connections between many contestants and judges. "I don't believe there is any conflict, any impact on the judging," said Purrington.

L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan made an appearance at the end of the competition to proclaim Tuesday Placido Domingo/Operalia 2000 Day. Operalia, UCLA and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, which gave $50,000 to the competition this year, all have expressed interest in making a permanent home for the event in Los Angeles.

American baritone Rodney Gilfry, who will star in Los Angeles Opera's production of "La Cenerentola," opening Friday at the Music Center, was the amiable master of ceremonies, going so far as to tell stories of his own competition days and to croon "Besame Mucho," unaccompanied, while filling time waiting for the award announcements. At the end, all the contestants joined Domingo and the audience in singing the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco." A concert featuring all the competition winners with Domingo is scheduled for Dec. 15, in Royce Hall.

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