First among winners

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Published: 22nd October, 2015

Fiona Jopson’s dream came true as she was pronounced the winner of the 2015 Herald Sun Aria at the Melbourne Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall on October 20.  Jopson sang two mainstays of nineteenth century operatic repertoire: Pleurez mes yeux from Massenet’s Le Cid and Pace, Pace Mio Dio from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. She and her coach, Raymond Lawrence, believed that these arias from Grand Opera would allow her to show just what she can do – and their choice was vindicated.

In a field of six gifted singers deemed by Maestro Richard Divall to be the best overall standard in years, Jopson can be extremely proud of her accomplishments. Not only has she won a cash prize of $12,500 and a further $22,500 for overseas tuition, she impressed the large audience of Hamer Hall with her confident, expressive performance and technical skill. The carefully shaped beginning of the Verdi aria and the glorious full richness of her secure top notes were among the most thrilling moments of the evening.

And who knows what talent scouts might have been in the audience? Even those who did not win a prize might just have the ingredients somebody is looking for. The big aria competitions demand nerves of steel; if you can give of your best on these occasions then you mark yourself as a young singer who can deal with pressure – an essential attribute for an operatic career. Her third prize in the 2012 Herald Sun Aria, study in Italy last year, intensive coaching with Raymond Lawrence and her powerful performance this year showed that she is willing to put in the hard yards and ready to take the next step.

The attributes that earned all the other contestants a place in this year’s lineup were plain to see and hear. Second place getter, Boyd Owen, seemed to toss off the succession of top C’s with ease in what is regarded as the “Mount Everest” of arias for tenors: Donizetti’s Ah! mes amis. His light lyric tenor and engaging stage presence also brought vitality to a challenging Rossini aria.

While most of the repertoire came from the nineteenth century, Max Riebl, who was presented with the Encouragement Award, chose two arias by Handel that displayed his astonishing command of coloratura and a degree of power throughout the range rare in counter tenors.

Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni was Nathan Lay’s first aria, followed by Billy Budd’s Look! Through the Port Comes the Moonshine Astray. The second piece in particular allowed him to display the lovely warm quality of his baritone voice and his sensitive musicality to great advantage. The flute and lower instruments of Orchestra Victoria added to the magical tenderness of Britten’s moving piece.

Rebecca Gulinello also selected an aria from Don Giovanni, making a convincingly passionate Donna Elvira with Mi Tradi. A change into a more demure costume for Micaela’s aria accentuated the contrast in musical style as well as character. The recitative of both the Mozart and Bizet arias revealed a singer keen to use her appealing soprano voice and dramatic skill to infuse the music with emotional intensity.

Our genial Master of Ceremonies Christopher Lawrence found an interesting descriptor for Bronwyn Douglass’s voice: “caramel”. It was entirely appropriate too. Those who had heard her win the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Oratorio Aria competition at Deakin Edge in August had been immediately captivated by her unusual mezzo soprano, composed and beautiful throughout the range. Singing O Mio Fernando from Donizetti’s La Favorita and the less familiar aria from Samson et Dalila with unforced ease on the final low notes, she won even more admirers – despite being the only one of the six not living in Melbourne. That being said, the very popular Fiona Jopson is originally from Scone, NSW, which just goes to show how fair-minded Melbourne audiences are.

Sponsored by the Herald and Weekly Times “in perpetual memory of gallant Australian soldiers who have lost their lives in the service of their country”, the Herald Sun Aria is also Australia’s longest running vocal competition and looks set to make it well beyond its centenary year of 2024. There is no doubt that this investment has been a boon to singers and opera lovers alike. The 2015 Final just happened to coincide exactly with Nicole Car’s debut as Micaela on the stage of Covent Garden. As the 2007 winner of this competition, she is one of many successful singers who have benefited from the opportunities afforded by this admirable showcase for operatic talent. The guidance of Maestro Divall and the support of fine playing by Orchestra Victoria are a major part of this.

Encompassing a wide range of voice types with an equal number of males and females, the inclusion of an introductory short video of extracts from the semifinals and some wonderful guitar playing by Slava Grigorian while the judges (Maestro Divall, Merlyn Quaife and Greg Hocking) reached their verdict, this 91st Anniversary Final of the Herald Sun Aria was one to remember.