2022 Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition Showcases Stars of Tomorrow

On stage at the Centre Stage: Ensemble Studio Competition, 2022 L-R upper: Korin Thomas-Smith, first prize winner Karoline Podolak, third prize winner River Guard; Lower: Matthew Li, second prize winner Hannah Crawford, Laura Nielsen; third prize winner Wesley Harrison (Photo: Michael Cooper)

It was indeed a grand night of singing.

For opera fans, there’s nothing quite like hearing fresh, young, beautiful voices, one after another in showstopping arias, knowing some of them will be future opera stars.

COC’s Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition has just the right formula to attract opera lovers near and far to its annual event. Centre Stage offers contestants recognition, prize money, and the chance to become a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, a dream of many aspiring singers.

I have been attending this competition from the very beginning, when it was held at the Joey and Toby Tannenbaum Centre on Front Street. Then it moved to the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, where we sat on the stairs that served as seats. Not the most comfortable location, but hey — the voices were great, so I’m not complaining!

In recent years, Centre Stage has morphed into a leading attraction for the COC, with all the bells and whistles, taking place in the main auditorium complete with full orchestra and a fancy reception. For a cool $1,000 per ticket, patrons get the royal treatment, including a dinner. For those opting for just the main attraction, it was a more modest $150 a head.

I arrived a few minutes before the appointed time of 5:30 p.m., and already there were plenty of opera fans, a few dressed to the nines, waiting to get in. Then it was an extended 90 minutes of pre-competition reception. For opera fans — yours truly included — it was a chance to see old friends and make new ones. How cool is that?

Then it was the main event. It was well attended, but FSC wasn’t full by any means. What the crowd lacked in size, it made up for with enthusiasm. As expected, new COC head honcho Perryn Leech welcomed the audience, plus a few video/sound bites of supporters projected on the stage. Then it was down to business!

On stage at the Centre Stage: Ensemble Studio Competition, 2022 L-R: third prize winner Wesley Harrison, first prize winner Karoline Podolak, Laura Nielsen (Photo: Michael Cooper)
On stage at the Centre Stage: Ensemble Studio Competition, 2022 L-R: third prize winner Wesley Harrison, first prize winner Karoline Podolak, Laura Nielsen (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Seven singers — three sopranos, two tenors, one baritone and one bass. Kicking off the proceedings was soprano Laura Nielsen with Micaela’s Aria (from Carmen), singing it with fresh, attractive, sweet tone, with a nice top and a bit of flutter. Good start!

Then it was tenor Wesley Harrison in Ottavio’s showstopper, “Il mio Tesoro,” revealing a nice Mozartian tenor. Particularly interesting was the interpolated coloratura at one point, something I had not heard before.

Korin Thomas-Smith was next. I was familiar with his voice from the U of T Faculty of Music — nice, warm lyric baritone and engaging stage presence. His choice of aria was a surprise to me, the unfamiliar “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto” from Rinaldo. Typically, one chooses warhorses for the benefit of the audience. Never mind — he sang well.

Soprano Hannah Crawford was next, with another relatively unfamiliar piece from Herodiade, Salome’s “Il est doux, il est bon,” a gorgeous aria that requires lots of chiaroscuro, particularly high piano, which Crawford executed with aplomb.

Bass Matthew Li sang a lovely “La caluunia” from Barbiere — very nice voice, albeit a stronger sense of theatricality would have been nice — his Basilio was too gentlemanly.

Then it was tenor River Guard’s turn to shine, a voice very familiar to me at the U of T Faculty of Music. He chose the fiendishly difficult aria from Faust, a piece that had defeated many great singers in the past. He sang very well, with lovely tone, good volume, and plenty of expression. The only thing wanting was a bigger, fuller voiced climactic high C, but I am nitpicking.

The final singer was soprano Karoline Podolak, with another showstopper, “Sempre libera” from La Traviata. It takes guts to choose this piece in a competition, but hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it! And, Ms. Podolak got it, to be sure. Talk about saving the best for last! She was the final singer and was the best of the bunch. Four high Cs? A high D flat? A high E flat? No problem! She aced it. She got my vote for Audience Prize.

The results? Podolak wins First Prize and Audience Prize; Hannah Crawford wins Second Prize; Guard and Harrison tied for Third Prize. I have to say I agree with the jurors (Adrianne Pieczonka, J’Nai Bridges, Roberto Mauro, and Perryn Leech).

That’s the end of another terrific competition. I must say, everyone sang with fresh, beautiful voices, and they all have the potential for a fine career. In my book, they are all winners!

Bravi tutti!

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Joseph So
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