Front And Centre: Meet COC Ensemble Studio Competition Winner Karoline Podolak

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)

For opera fans in Toronto, one of the delights of the fall season is the annual Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition, presented by the Canadian Opera Company. Established in relatively modest fashion back in 2011, this event has morphed into a glitzy gala where opera lovers get to hear young artists with terrific voices competing on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre, complete with the full COC orchestra. Winners are awarded prize money, plenty of publicity, and a chance to be invited to join the COC Ensemble Studio.

For the first time this year, Centre Stage was livestreamed, and anyone watching in cyberspace could cast an online vote for the Audience Prize. It was a very competitive field, with seven finalists chosen from auditions over the summer. At the end of the evening, the First Prize and Audience Prize were awarded to Polish Canadian soprano Karoline Podolak. Her winning aria was Violetta’s showstopping “Sempre libera” from La Traviata, a great vehicle for the lyric-coloratura soprano.

I recall sitting in the audience, rather nonchalantly waiting to be entertained by the last contestant. Then Ms. Podolak came onstage, in a dazzling gold floor-length gown. The moment she launched into the aria, my ears perked up. I remember thinking to myself that I was witnessing something very special. For the next five minutes, she sang Violetta’s great aria beautifully. Her tone was gleaming, with excellent agility for the treacherous runs, showing fine musicality, attractive stage presence, not to mention that intangible something called star power.

Particularly memorable was her top range. The climax of this aria requires four high C’s, a high D-flat and a high E-flat. For Podolak, it was a veritable piece of cake, ending with a triumphant high E-flat. End of story! She had my vote of the Audience Prize, and it turned out she had the vote of the majority in the house and in cyberspace.

When the COC asked me to interview Ms. Podolak for an article, I was only too happy to oblige. Online research led me to her website and her YouTube channel. You can hear the versatile Ms. Podolak sing a selection of arias, and a surprise — she accompanies herself on the guitar in pop songs! It should come as no surprise as the young Karoline studied the violin and guitar before taking up singing, and she has a degree in radio and media from Ryerson.

Her Centre Stage triumph amply demonstrates her depth of experience, having already enjoyed successes in competitions and on stages in Europe and North America. She made her operatic debut in 2019, at the Silesian Opera House, as Zuzia in Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Verbum Nobile, followed by Adele in Die Fledermaus. Earlier this year, Podolak sang her first Violetta at the Bulgarian National Opera and Ballet in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is currently a young artist of the Atelier Lyrique of Opéra de Montréal.

After her triumph at Centre Stage, I caught up with her for a chat.

LvT: First of all, congratulations on the Centre Stage win! I must say I was really taken by your performance of “Sempre libera.” How does it feel to be both the First Prize winner and the Audience Prize winner?

Thank you so much! It’s a surreal feeling! I remember when I first started singing, the Centre Stage Competition was the first competition I had heard about, and I thought “wow, it would be so cool to be able to compete in it one day…” — and here we are! I am so honoured.

LvT: I read on your website that you have been very successful in competitions. What is the secret of your success?

When it comes to competitions, it’s a process… I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle and good sleep hygiene so that my body is physically in its best position to perform well. I conserve my voice. I focus and keep striving to improve my repertoire and maintain my stamina through practice and coaching leading up to the competition. On competition days, I always have my chamomile tea with me!

L-R: Karoline Podolak (Photo: Karpati & Zarewicz); Karoline Podolak on stage at the Centre Stage: Ensemble Studio Competition, 2022 (Photo: Michael Cooper)
L-R: Karoline Podolak (Photo: Karpati & Zarewicz); Karoline Podolak on stage at the Centre Stage: Ensemble Studio Competition, 2022 (Photo: Michael Cooper)

LvT: How do you deal with your nerves in a competition? Or maybe you don’t have any…

I do have nerves, but not all the time…it depends on the situation. When I am performing in a production, I feel less nervous, as I get transported into the character. But in a competition, when it’s just you on the stage…and the judges…it’s more nerve wracking. I try to have trust in myself. I know the repertoire, I’ve done this before. I try to reassure myself it’ll be okay. Even if it doesn’t go according to plan, it’s not the end of the world. I try to take the pressure off myself.

LvT: Tell me, just out of curiosity — what are your plans for the prize money?

Honestly, most of the prize money will go to general life expenses. It is a very nice relief to have it. But there is one thing: I told myself that if I ever won a major competition, I would treat myself to a designer purse that I have been eyeing for years. I’m excited for that because it will remind me of this experience. And I will take my family for dinner — they have been my biggest supporters.

LvT: I read that you were born in Toronto. Do you come from a musical family?

Yes, I do come from a very musical family. My parents are in a choir. My mom also sang in a band in her youth in Poland, and all my siblings play an instrument. I studied violin and guitar, and still play guitar to this day. Music has been a big part of our lives. I am the only opera singer, but we were nurtured with music at a young age. My family’s favourite movie is Amadeus, so we watched it often while growing up. I was very inspired by the music in it, specifically Constanze’s aria in the Die Entführung aus dem Serail scene, and the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte scene. I also went to Canadian Opera Company productions as a child.

LvT: Tell us your earliest memories of singing. When did you start taking voice lessons? Was Kinga Mitrowska your first voice teacher?

I always loved singing, and I would find myself belting out songs and testing my voice in my room growing up. I would make opera impressions for fun, until my parents suggested I try vocal lessons with Polish Canadian opera singer Kinga Mitrowska. That was in 2016, while I was pursuing a different career [in radio and media]. I really took singing seriously by 2018/2019, and I shifted my focus full time into singing. My teacher sparked my passion for classical singing, and I work with her to this day. Around the time I started taking singing lessons, Krzysztof Jedrysik, who was at the time the conductor of the choir my parents are in — Quo Vadis Choir and Camerata Ensemble in Brampton, Ontario — he invited me to be a soloist. Performing with them was my first introduction to singing in public, and they hold a special place in my heart!

Karoline Podolak as Violetta in the La Traviata at the National Opera and Ballet of Bulgaria (Photo: Svetoslav Nikolov)
Karoline Podolak as Violetta in the La Traviata at the National Opera and Ballet of Bulgaria (Photo: Svetoslav Nikolov)

LvT: When you first started studying voice, did you have any singer(s) you particularly admired?

I admire many singers, but especially Maria Callas, June Anderson, and Lisette Oropesa.

LvT: Where did you make your professional debut, and in what role? Do you also sing recitals? Do you have favourite Lieder and song composers?

My professional debut was as Zuzia in Verbum Nobile, a Polish opera by Stanisław Moniuszko. Right after that, I performed Adele in Die Fledermaus. Yes, I do sing recitals as well. My favourite song composers would be Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Chopin.

LvT: Do you have any dream roles that you hope to sing some day?

Lucia, Gilda, and Constanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. And perhaps Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.

LvT: Queen of the Night! You sing up to a high F?

Yes, when I warm up, I go up to a G…

LvT: Wow, a high G! You don’t use it, do you?

But I know it’s there, and it gives me a buffer!

LvT: I see that you’re based in Montreal. Tell us about your future plans. What engagements do you have coming up?

I am currently a member of the Atelier Lyrique in Opéra de Montréal. I am very grateful to them. They have always believed in me, and they’ve been very supportive and have helped me grow as an artist. This season, I have upcoming performances at Opéra de Montréal, in L’enfant et les sortilèges next February, playing the roles of Feu, Princesse, and Rossignol. I also have an upcoming production in the Toronto area that I am excited about, but is still to be announced. In terms of international engagements, I have upcoming performances in 2023, in Daegu Opera House in South Korea, Meininger Staatstheater in Germany, Štatna Filharmónia Košice in Slovakia, and as Norina in Don Pasquale in Luxembourg.

LvT: Well, it sounds like you are well on your way! A final question — when I interview artists, I often end it with this question — do you have a piece of advice that has helped you in your life, both as an artist and a person?

In terms of advice, the following have stuck out to me in my life: “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love” — Jim Carey. Pursuing a career in opera is riskier than other professions, but I love it so much that I would rather take the risk and try my best, than to do something safer, something that isn’t even guaranteed forever. My sister Claudia and I have always told each other that “you only live once” — before Drake made a song about it. It reminds us to seize the day, live life to its fullest, and to do what makes us happy. It’s better to take the opportunities and the risks than to have regrets of not doing it. I would rather live with the satisfaction of knowing that I did my best no matter the outcome, than to live with regret of what could have been…

LVT: I like that — a really smart outlook on life! And I hope to be in the audience when your upcoming engagement in the Toronto area materializes. Thank you for speaking with me, and my very best to you for the future.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Joseph So
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