Young opera singers compete for chance at fame

Maria Valdes remembers the thrill of performing at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall with the Kennesaw Mountain High School chorus.

“I remember being backstage and looking at the signed head-shots of all the famous opera singers that have been there,” she says. “I was 16 and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could sing opera here one day.’”

On February 3, Valdes will see that dream come true when she competes at the venue with 12 other young singers from across the Southeast for a shot at singing at an even higher level. The winners will travel to New York and audition for the Metropolitan Opera.

The annual Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions are designed to help it discover talented young opera singers between 20 and 30 years old. Hopefuls compete on the district level and winners move to the regional level, which is the event taking place at Spivey. It is one of 13 similar events in North America. A handful of competitors end up in the final round where they’ll compete at the Metropolitan Opera in New York backed by a full orchestra.

The jury will award approximately five grand winners $15,000 each and many former competitors who do well have ended up on stage at the Met in productions.

Competitors prepare five opera arias of contrasting languages and styles. The performer picks one to sing and after hearing it, the judges pick the next aria from the other selections.

“It is definitely a nerve-wracking process,” says Lawson Anderson, a graduate of the Westminster Schools and University of Virginia, who has advanced for the second time to the regional level. “But having the audience there at Spivey kind of sets the mood. It’s great to gauge the crowd’s reaction and it defers attention from the fact that there are three judges there watching everything you do and every sound you make

“I take out my contacts so I won’t see much of anything. That’s my trick,” he said.

“We’ve been preparing for years,” says Valdes, who recently graduated with a degree in vocal studies from Georgia State University and works part time as a barista at Dancing Goats in Decatur.

“I started working on some of these arias three or four years ago,” she says. “My technique in competition is just to be open and try to communicate what the songs’ characters are saying. When the characters are singing, it really takes the stress off of what I’m worrying about.”

Like Valdes, Anderson is balancing a day job with his ambitions as an opera singer. He works in management consulting with Price Waterhouse Cooper, a job which requires a lot of travel. So he brings opera scores with him on the road. He says his time playing football and baseball at Westminster gave him the work ethic and discipline he needs to keep at it everyday.

“It’s just like working out. If you’re not singing everyday, you’re going to fall behind.” he says. “You’ve got to stay in shape vocally.”

Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald, a recent graduate from GSU, says he’ll probably pick the aria he’ll sing in competition on the day of the audition based on what feels right.

“I’ll wake up early and go for a run, maybe do some yoga,” he says. “Really, it’s just about being in a physically and mentally aware, calm place. The things that can get you are nerves mostly and if you’re not in good health. I’m just taking very good care of myself.”

Although it is a grueling process, many famous opera singers, including many of those whose pictures now hang backstage at Spivey Hall, have gone through the auditions. But ultimately, there will be only one winner at Spivey.

“Doing well in the competition draws a lot of attention from people in the industry,” says Valdes. “It’s absolutely a foot in the door.”

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions

2 p.m. Sunday.

$35. Spivey Hall, Clayton State University, Morrow. 678-466-4200.

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