Up, Up and Away! HPAF’s Vocal Competition, Classical Division


What can be as good as hearing and seeing world-famous opera stars like Cecilia Violetta Lopez from your home?  It’s hearing and seeing the up and coming young singers who may well become the next Cecilias! We love witnessing how HPAF boosts the next generation of classical singers up the career ladder at three points in their climb. Young Singers, 14 through 18, are jumping on the ladder. At the next rungs, Developing Singers are undergrad or graduate level musical performance majors. Encrantz Fellows are at the top, already experienced, ready to join the best opera companies.

Most summers, we are introduced to the students through evenings of song, and in their performances in the operas and musical theatre events. This year, HPAF has had to invent something new. They did not try to simply reproduce what was done when the performances were live, but have instead created a completely different experience for their audience and their performers.

On Sunday, we witnessed the exciting finale to a first-ever vocal competition. Eight finalists had been selected from all three categories of singers. Justin John Moniz assured us that the winners could come from any of the three levels, because the criteria would be different for each. Of the five judges, three were opera greats:  Jamie Barton, Cecilia Violetta Lopez, and Peabody Southwell, two of whom were HPAF alumna, and all of whom have performed at the Met, the pinnacle of operatic success. Ana De Archuleta is an artist manager, and HPAF’s own Artistic Director Val Underwood, doubly gifted as a pianist and a vocal artist, were also judges.

And for the first time, we had the unique opportunity to chat “backstage” with these Metropolitan Opera veterans. How did they get their first opportunity to step onto that enormous stage? Peabody Southwell humbly admitted that she got there by luck: she was selected as a “cover,” or substitute, because she looked like the main singer!  Cecelia did audition for The Merry Widow, her first role at the Met, and was thrilled to be chosen as a cover. When the performer dropped out twenty minutes before curtain, Cecelia ran to grab what she knew could be a huge step up for her career. The professionals counseled that one should treat such opportunities like auditions; you must be well prepared and not only do as good a job as the person you are replacing, but to give it some extra flavor of your own as well; know the character and be ready to act as well as sing, so you are not waving your arms randomly! 

It was asked whether it is more difficult to perform from home in this time of COVID-19.  In live performances, there is a chemistry between the artist and the audience, the energy of one feeds the other. Jamie bemoaned the silence at the end of a living room aria where before, her last note was met with the clapping of 3,800 pairs of hands at the Met! Peabody worried that performing opera in one’s own living room would not only destroy relationships with the neighbors, but the huffing and puffing could blow the house down!  She suggested that opera might need to change to fit the new medium since the acoustics by zoom are so different from an opera hall. After Iggy Jang’s performance, I thought that “chamber music” was being updated to the post-COVID world, and Peabody also suggested that perhaps classical singing would need to take on more of a “chamber” quality than an operatic one to adapt to the new virtual media.

We are living the future, not just through new media, but through the young artists. Only one was from the Young Singer category, Hawaii Island’s own Solomon Shumate, who gave a light and lively performance from Alessandro Scarlatti. We also love soprano Stacee Firestone, a Developing Singer also from Hawaii Island, who can land the high notes with purity and clarity. We have heard these two before in other HPAF performances and I’m sure we will hear them again. It makes us proud to see our island’s own young people continue to expand their talent year by year.

I loved Laura Beth Couch’s performance of the humorous “Route to the Sky,” by contemporary American classical composer Jake Heggie, demonstrating that opera and art song can be accessible to all.  Sarah Kuhlmann’s soprano was powerful in “Song to the Moon,” sung in Czech no less! from Anton Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. 

 On Zoom, polls can be created instantaneously, and we were asked to vote for the “audience favorite.”  The winner was Megan Maloney (above). She sang the same piece we heard from Cecilia a few days ago, “Je Suis Encore,” from Manon by Massenet. Megan was the best of the bunch at acting the role of the character she sang; her portrayal of the naive and giddy teenager was adorable.

Nyla Watson

Coming in third was Andrew Thomas Pardini with a firm and resonant baritone in L’Orage s’est calme” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Soprano Nyla Watson came in second; I was grateful for her introduction to African American composer Margaret Bonds, as much a groundbreaker as the women in Hidden Figures. “Dream Variation,” set to a poem by African American poet Langston Hughes, was a perfect choice for this historical moment of racial reckoning. 

“And the winner is….”  drum roll, Hallie Schmidt! “Try Me Good King” is based on texts from the last words of Anne Boleyn, in her trial and at her beheading. It is unusual to have several American composers on the playlist, and this time, two of them were women.  Appropriate for this Me Too” time, Libby Larsen wrote a song cycle using the words of the eight wives of King Henry the VIII, whom he treated as disposable property. This is a difficult piece, filled with desperate emotion, requiring control, stamina, and the ability to nail a high C#. Hallie’s diction allowed us to understand every word. While still a Developing Singer, Hallie Schmidt seems ready for prime time. 

We don’t need to worry about the future of opera. These up and coming young singers, hard-working, determined, and in love with their instrument and their craft, will take it to new heights. Up, up, and away!

Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos courtesy of Hawaii Performing Arts Festival. Featured image: Hallie Schmidt


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