The 95th Anniversary Final of the Herald Sun Aria, lived up to its self-proclaimed reputation as “the oldest and most prestigious event across Australasia for emerging classical singers”. With the support of The Herald and Weekly Times and the generosity of philanthropists Drs Mark and Alla Medownick, who sponsored the winner’s prize, and Lady Primrose Potter, who joined other donors for the Richard Divall Prize and the John Fulford Prize, more than $60,000 in cash was made available to the five finalists.
The move from Hamer Hall to the Elisabeth Murdoch has proved to be popular, this year attracting an enthusiastic capacity audience. Continuing the relationship between Melbourne Opera and Royal South Street Society, the venerable organisation that manages the heats, the budding young operatic stars were accompanied by the Melbourne Opera Orchestra under the baton of Greg Hocking. Once again, Christopher Lawrence was our genial master of ceremonies, providing a balanced mixture of entertaining information and commentary as he encouraged the audience to give the singers enthusiastic support – which they did to his increasing satisfaction. Even the two Sydneysiders, soprano Jessica Harper and tenor Joshua Oxley, were applauded with as much fervour as the locals: baritone Stephen Marsh, mezzo soprano Chloe Harris and soprano Georgia Wilkinson.
It is the nature of competitions that the results will be unlikely to please everybody and listeners felt for the singers who did not receive major prizes on this occasion. As is generally the case with the Aria, it was clear why all five singers had made it to the Final – a significant achievement in itself. They all possessed outstanding features and were reminded more than once that they all, without exception, were destined for successful singing careers. The adjudicators’ decision was based on their performance in the heats as well as the final and on their responses during an interview.
The Medownick Winner’s Prize of $35,000 was awarded to Georgia Wilkinson, a soprano with an exceptionally lovely voice, whose acting experience was evident in the exciting way she used the performance space and committed herself fully to a rapturous characterisation of Verdi’s Gilda and Gounod’s Juliette. The $10,000 Richard Divall Prize went to Chloe Harris, who was the only singer to select a Baroque aria. For “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare Greg Hocking reduced the size of the orchestra substantially, using only two of the six cellos and one of the four double basses. The size of the orchestra had proved problematic at times. A contingent that includes twenty-four violins is really too large for such a resonant hall, even with the acoustic blinds lowered a little. Stephen Marsh’s smooth, rich baritone was not given a fighting chance at times in Rossini’s “Largo al factotum”. This is not to say that his voice lacks power, rather, the problem lay in having to contend with overly loud playing coming from directly behind him as opposed to coming from an orchestra pit. The John Fulford Prize of $10,000 went to 25-year-old Joshua Oxley, who impressed many listeners as Gounod’s Roméo and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. He remained off-stage until the last moments of the extended orchestral introductions to both demanding tenor arias, allowing some fine orchestral playing to create an appropriate atmosphere, which he sustained effectively.
While adjudicators Greg Hocking, John Bolton Wood and Dimity Shepherd were deliberating, the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School Chamber Choir performed – yes, they did more than just stand and sing – songs by Charles Ives, Franz Lehar and Gilbert and Sullivan. The high standard of their singing and presentation was a reminder that we have a new wave of aspiring singers eager to make their mark on our stages in the near future. Perhaps a future Aria winner was among their ranks and will join this year’s winner and the 2012 winner, Brenton Spiteri, – both VCASS alumni.
Whether or not the audience agreed with the adjudicators’ decisions, there seemed to be a general consensus that the outstanding quality of all finalists made for a tremendously rewarding listening experience. Georgia Wilkinson’s emotional acceptance speech reminded us of the crucial importance of opportunities such as these, while a full house signalled a healthy appetite for opera and an appreciation of exceptional operatic talent. Australian Arts funding bodies please take note.
If you missed out on a ticket, tune into 3MBS on Wednesday, October 30 at 8pm.
Heather Leviston attended the Herald Sun Aria at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on October 23, 2019.