OPERALIA 2000

Along about nine o’clock on Tuesday night, a slender young soprano with the tongue-twisting name of Isabel Bayrakdarian – Lebanese-born, now Canadian — came onto the stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall, wrapped her honey-textured voice around the equally tongue-twisting divisions in Rossini’s killer aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” (from “Semiramide”) and gave off the star quality that would be confirmed a couple of hours later – that she had earned and deserved top spot in the latest running of Placido Domingo’s “Operalia.” Domingo concocted his young-singers’ competition in 1993; previous turns had been in Paris, Mexico City, Tokyo, Hamburg, Madrid, Bordeaux and San Juan, The scuttlebutt this week has it that the event will now stay put in Los Angeles; this, after all, would jibe with the establishment of the latest outpost of Domingo’s empire (“Placidalia”?), this week’s opening of his inaugural season as the L.A. Opera’s artistic director following the departure of founder/honcho Peter Hemmings.
Forty-one hopeful singers, ranging in age from 19 to 30, came to Los Angeles to endure the peeling-off process through several days of quarters and semis, dealing out some of opera’s well-roasted chestnuts (with disturbingly few novelties) with piano accompaniment. One of the accompanists was Larissa Gergieva, the sister of Russian superstar conductor Valery Gergiev; she also sent along three of her vocal students to join with ten other Russians (plus two Ukrainians and one Armenian) in a somewhat overweighted list. Seven Russians survived to the finals; only one, however, made it to the winners’ circle: tenor Daniil {cq} Shtoda, who tied for second with Chinese soprano He Hui.
In their seven years, the Operalias have done their bit toward rekindling an operatic golden age. Soprano Elizabeth Futral, the Stella in Andre Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire” got a boost from a previous running; so did tenor José Cura, the Alfredo in the recent PBS “La Traviata,” and so did the remarkable Los Angeles-born countertenor Brian Asawa, whose career extends worldwide. They have also pulled in some prestigious support; philanthropist and opera-fanatic Albert Vilar, who has been with the project from the start, Los Angeles meat-tenderizer tycoon Lloyd Rigler, and such corporate names as Rolex Watches U.S.A. and Grand Marnier. Just the prize-money budget for this year’s outing came to nearly $200,000.
That included a $50,000 first-prize check to Isabel Bayrakdarian, $25,000 checks to both second-prize winners, and $15,000 each to third-prize winners, The Ukraine’s tenor Konstyantin Andreyev and Canadian bass Robert Pomakov. Lloyd Rigler donated a separate $10,000 prize to a stage-burning Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola, who had earned the loudest cheers at each of her stints during the week, and who also took a “people’s prize” in that amount, determined by paper ballots from the Royce Hall audience and e-mail from listeners to the broadcast event. No finalist went home empty-handed, in fact, thanks to a $5,000 across-the-board handout.
The ten-member judges’ panel included the singer Marilyn Horne, herself greatly dedicated to training young singers at her Santa Barbara-based Music Academy of the West. Other panelists included heads of opera companies in Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Mexico and the U.S. Among them was Eva Wagner Pasquier, currently artistic consultant to France’s reborn Aix-en-Provence Festival and one of the several Wagnerians now in the fray to head their ancestor’s Bayreuth Festival  — and, thus, no stranger to the world of operatic competition.
And at the end, pushing toward midnight, singers, judges, donors, Marta and Placido Domingo and L.A. mayor Richard Riordan joined forces with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra – which had provided the requisite oom-pa-pahs under Domingo’s baton for the long evening of opera’s greatest hits –in the granddaddy of operatic anthems, the “Va, pensiero” chorus from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” confirming once again that, when all is said and sung, there’s nothing like a grand tune to make opera worth the sweat, the tears, and the cash.