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Young singers soar at Vero Opera’s Rising Stars concert

Gabrielle Beteag

The stage at the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center was dramatically empty, save for a vast, starry blue backdrop and an elegant ebony grand piano, as the audience of opera lovers leafed through their programs in anticipation of an evening of great music featuring diverse, exciting arias performed by some of the absolute best young operatic talent in the world today.

It was the Vero Beach Opera’s annual Rising Stars Vocal Competition Awards Concert, the culmination of a three-day event featuring 11 young singers, all of whom have performance experience and are already making names for themselves, having won prestigious awards in the Metropolitan Opera Laffont competitions and others.

The competition itself took place during the two previous, grueling days as four mezzo sopranos, four sopranos, two tenors and one countertenor gave their all, vying for the first, second and third prizes. By the night of the awards concert, the winners had been chosen, and were announced at its conclusion.

The 2024 Grand Prize winner and recipient of the $10,000 first prize was soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, who performed “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” which echoes the story of the Little Mermaid. Rusalka is a water nymph who falls in love with a prince, and her song is a plea to the moon to reveal her love to the prince. As Rusalka, Razskazoff captivated, informing her character with hope and longing.

Razskazoff’s career highlights include being named Grand Finals Winner in the 2022 Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition, and making her international debut in Santiago, Chile, singing Mimi in “La Boheme.”

The captivating soprano advanced to the semifinals of in the prestigious 2021 Operalia Vocal Competition in Moscow, and took first place in both the James Toland Vocal Arts Competition and the Giovanni Consiglio International Competition, and third in several others.

Razskazoff has been praised by the New York Times as “a richly faceted, slinky soprano whose voice is rich, distinctive of timbre and penetrating.”

In a lighthearted “Rapid Fire” mini interview following the final performance of the final day of competition, Razskazoff dubbed herself (and other young singers seeking to advance their careers) “nomads,” although she currently calls St. Pete home.

As a child, Razskazoff recalls singing “Eensy-Weensy Spider” with her Dad (including the hand motions); and she sees opera as a way to momentarily “escape into someone else’s life, their troubles and experiences.”

Taking second place and the accompanying $5,000 prize was Armenian American soprano Tatev Baroyan. Having been born in Yerevan, Armenia, into a family of musicians, she possesses “a background rooted in music from a young age.”

Baroyan was initially a piano major, and then studied vocal performance before coming to the U.S., where she graduated from Sarasota’s Opera Apprenticeship Program.

The 2022-23 season was an outstanding and busy one for Baroyan. She won first prize in the Florida District and second in the Southeast Region for the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition, and was also a finalist and recipient of the Hope for the Future of Opera Award in the Batumian Rhapsody International Vocal Competition “Golden Voice of Opera.”

Her choice for the Awards Concert was the Snow Maiden’s aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian fairytale opera “The Snow Maiden.” Baroyan’s clean, clear and compelling voice inhabited the titular teenage girl with a heart of ice, whose very existence offends the Sun God. Only when she learns to love, and her heart melts, will the Sun God be appeased and bring about the arrival of summer.

In the Rapid Fire interview, Baroyan said she sees opera as “a way for humanity to communicate without necessarily having to understand.”

The $3,000 third prize was awarded to tenor Daniel Espinal, currently in the final year of his graduate degree at Yale, already having earned a bachelor’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

The charismatic tenor is the Grand Finals Winner in the 2024 Met Opera Laffont Competition (which he calls a “dream come true”) and, during the 2022-23 season, he was a young artist in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program. He also recently appeared as Tom Rakewell in “The Rake’s Progress” at Yale Opera and, this coming season, he’ll join the Ryan Opera Center at Chicago’s Lyric Opera as an apprentice artist.

Espinal views opera as “a great way to connect with people and let my inner soul shine.”

Espinol chose to perform “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” from Gounod’s romantic tragedy “Faust,” an aria Faust sings, having sold his soul to the devil, as he sends Mephistopheles in search of a gift for his love interest, Marguerite, who has fallen in love with him.

Espinol projected desire and longing with depth, clarity and, as one critic put it, “without needing vocal theatrics.” His vocal teacher at Yale speaks of the “distinctive color of his voice” and his “natural charisma, neither of which can be taught.”

A $1,000 Encouragement Award was presented to each of the remaining eight talented competitors, provided by the Sergio Franchi Music Foundation; the Louis L. Lawson Legacy Fund; In Memory of Sofia Blanchard; Tommy and Simonetta Steyer; and the Windsor Foundation.

Those recipients were: mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag, mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung, mezzo-soprano Simona Genga, mezzo-soprano Qirong Liang, countertenor Chuanyuan Liu, soprano Midori Marsh, soprano Emily Richter and tenor Demetrious Sampson Jr.

Vero audiences were already familiar with the evening’s accompanist, Anna Fateeva, who was pianist at VBO’s recent “Best of Broadway and Opera” and at the 2023 Rising Stars Competition.

Fateeva, who holds a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Miami, has performed with many distinguished artists, including Renee Fleming and others.

Another familiar VBO face, Ian Campbell, returned as Master of Ceremonies. Campbell has worked in opera for 55 years, as stage director, artistic director, broadcaster, lecturer, company director and, in his native Australia, as a tenor with Opera Australia.

Tasked with the challenge of choosing the winners was an impressive jury: four individuals with a wealth of opera knowledge, all well-known to VBO audiences.

Jury president Roman Ortega-Cowan, one of VBO’s founders, is its currently artistic advisor and an operatic baritone.

Gregory Buchalter, VBO music director, is a Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor and music director/conductor for Varna International.

With a repertoire of some of the most challenging roles in opera, Metropolitan Opera soprano Susan Neves has been acclaimed in opera houses across the globe.

Randy Romig is chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition, SE Region, and an organist for the Georgia Festival Chorus.

Following the awards ceremony, the audience was delighted when the 11 finalists came together on stage to sing the wonderful drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” a famous duet with chorus and a popular performance choice for sopranos and tenors.

A standing ovation completed the evening.

Photos by Joshua Kodis

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