Performing Arts

Concert of Arias Helps Break the Glass Ceiling for Tomorrow’s Opera Stars

Houston Grand Opera’s yearly competition is helping to usher in a new generation of diverse talent.

By Holly Beretto January 19, 2022

Houston Grand Opera is striving toward a more diverse future. 

It's American Idol, but with opera singers. Nine finalists will vie for prize money and places in the Houston Grand Opera’s prestigious HGO Studio, a training program for artists at the start of their careers. It's a program that's becoming a pipeline for diverse opera talent.

The finalists were selected from 18 semifinalists, drawn from around the world. Singers sent in audition videos, a holdover from what was done for last year’s competition, held during the height of the pandemic. It was a game-changer, and gave HGO a pool of singers that was dramatically different from years past, when the only singers to audition were those who had to travel to audition spots around the country.

“When we’re adjudicating singers, our criteria for acceptance and advancement to the studio, it is always based on vocal talent, artistry and musicianship, and overall potential for a career in opera,” HGO’s General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor told Houstonia

Houston Grand Opera’s 2022 Concert of Arias, the 34th Annual Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers, will take place on the Wortham Theater Center stage, and streamed online, Friday, Jan. 21.

The finalists for the competition will each perform two arias from the operatic repertoire for a panel of judges, who will award six prizes. The audience will vote for the Audience Choice Award. In the week leading up to the event, the finalists will work with coaches perfecting their technique and presentation. The judges will be soprano Christine Goerke, Dastoor, HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers, and HGO Artistic Advisor and soprano Ana María Martínez. Tenor Norman Reinhardt is hosting the livestream event, which will include a look at what’s happening behind the scenes. 

The event isn’t just a competition, but also a look at how the next generation of singers is approaching their craft. And most of all, it’s an opportunity for Houstonians to experience the full, forward-looking spirit of the Houston Grand Opera, which is working to be more inclusive.

“When we started looking at this gap between who we were putting on stage and who was living in the city of Houston, we didn’t like what we saw, and we knew the onus was on us. We needed to challenge ourselves to be a company that represents all of Houston and where every Houstonian feels they belong. So we focused on thinking of the studio as the tip of the spear.”

Much has been written about the lack of diversity in opera. Dastoor aims to employ more artists of color and recognize the need to be more inclusive. It’s a move similar to the strides other opera companies are taking to rectify the centuries-long issue. The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently hired its first chief diversity officer, while West Edge Opera in California announced a three-year strategic plan to promote diversity in casting and support works by diverse composers. 

Cory McGee, Nicholas Newton, Elena Villalón and Andres Acosta in The Snowy Day. Image courtesy of Lynn Lane and the Houston Grand Opera

Image: LYNN LANE

Houston Grand Opera’s competition should be another way to fill the diversity gap, something HGO has been trying to do for many years as a champion of new works and new voices. Its recent world premiere of The Snowy Day, created by an African-American composer and librettist,  was based on the beloved children’s book about a Black main character (itself a groundbreaking work). In 1996, HGO hosted the world premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, based on the writings of Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with composition and libretto by Mexican artists. It was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major company in the U.S.

This year, HGO’s Concert of Arias continues to usher in diversity, the nine finalists are among the most diverse in recent memory.  Singers with backgrounds that are Cuban-Puerto Rican American, Cuban-American, Brazilian and Korean descent, fill out the roster. The finalists are sopranos Amanda Batista, Tatiana Carlos, Meryl Dominguez and Olivia Smith; mezzo-soprano Shannon Keegan; baritone Navasard Hakobyan; bass-baritones Jongwan Han and Evan Lazdowski; and bass Jonas Judd; bass-baritone and soprano Olivia Smith.

Competitions like the one HGO offers are important to becoming an opera singer, which Dastoor explains isn’t easy and can cost upwards of a  $1-million investment, to pay for training programs and music degrees most professionals have. So, when singers have a chance to be part of something like the HGO Studio, whose alumni include opera stars Ana María Martínez, Heidi Stober, Jamie Barton, Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves, Norman Reinhardt, Ryan McKinny, Scott Hendricks and more, it’s a huge opportunity.

Singers in the HGO Studio receive advanced vocal training, time on stage in HGO productions, and access to some of the biggest names in opera. They learn how to manage their careers, how to work with artist management and how to perfect their craft. Most will spend two years in the program, before moving on. 

Concert of Arias is a gateway to a professional opera career for many of these singers.

“When you look at the alumni of the HGO Studio, it’s not just that we identify talent,” Dastoor says, “It’s that we invest in these artists, and that we trust them with the opportunity to really advance in their career.”

Concert of Arias will take place at the Houston Grand Opera on Jan. 21, 2022. For more information visit here.

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