on December 31, 2013 - 12:01 AM
, updated December 31, 2013 at 12:51 AM
Growing up on Grand Island, James Wright never listened to opera. Once, he tried it, and it didn’t work out. He saw Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Chautauqua Institution. “I hated it,” he said.
Thanks to recordings, though, he began to admire the deep voice of Welsh barrel-bass Bryn Terfel. And when he got the chance to hear Terfel at the Metropolitan Opera in “Das Rheingold” – the first of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” operas – he decided to go.
“I was 22, 23. I didn’t know much about Wagner. I had heard the same stereotypes as everyone else. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” he recalled. “But it was the best thing I had ever seen. The most beautiful music I had ever heard. I thought, this is awesome,” he said, his voice emotional. “I was hooked.”
How his life has changed. Now, “Don Giovanni” is one of his favorite operas. And on Saturday, Wright will be competing for a career at the Met.
He is one of more than 50 aspiring opera singers competing in the Buffalo/Toronto District division of the dramatic Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, held in Nichols School’s Flickinger Performing Arts Center. The singers, all between the ages of 20 and 30, will take the stage one by one starting at 10 a.m., to sing before exacting judges. The public is invited. Admission is free, and stakes are high.
The Met’s auditions, which take place every two years, can create big careers. World-renowned soprano Renèe Fleming, from Rochester, first caught the world’s attention this way. Tenor Ben Heppner and mezzo soprano Susan Graham also got their start competing before the Met’s judges. Hence the auditions’ unique air of excitement: The event is often described as opera’s “American Idol.”
Four of Saturday’s singers are from the Buffalo area. Besides Wright, they are Jenna Fishback and Madeline Harts, both of East Aurora, and Rachel Mikol of Orchard Park. Mikol and Fishback competed in last year’s auditions. The three young women all received their training at Ithaca College.
Wright, who attended Grand Island High School and Fredonia State College, has the highest profile locally of the four.
At 27, he is an adjunct professor at Fredonia and at Canisius College. He has been praised numerous times in The Buffalo News for his appearances in Nickel City Opera productions, including “Don Pasquale,” “La Boheme” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Most recently, he was featured in Opera Sacra’s “The Little Prince.”
This will be his second time singing at the Met auditions. He competed two years ago and considers it a learning experience. “I was young,” he said. “I did it to do it. I didn’t really expect to win. Competitions are weird. It’s the same with auditions. You have to go in and do your thing. If they like you, they like you. If they don’t, you don’t.”
Like all aspiring opera singers, Wright has learned to think practically.
“Part of the Met competitions, they don’t say this out loud, but sometimes there are specific things they’re looking for, specific voice types,” Wright reflected. “Some years, they might tell the judges, make sure you pay extra attention to the mezzos, or the basses, or whatever. They tend to keep the Met’s needs in mind.”
Wright is scheduled Saturday to sing in the first hour.
“It’s one of the downsides to being local,” he laughed. “They schedule the local people earlier. That way, if there’s a snowstorm or something, the people coming from farther away will have time to get there.”
Wright will be opening with a famously demanding aria from Charles Gounod’s “Faust.” He is comfortable with the opera, which he sang in 2011 in a Buffalo Opera Unlimited production in Rockwell Hall. And the aria, he points out, shows off a singer’s range. It includes several drawn out G’s and F’s, notes not every baritone can nail.
In preparation, he plans to get up at 4 a.m. “I’ll have something to eat, sit around and relax,” he said. “I probably won’t sing anything until 8 o’clock. Then I’ll start to warm up.”
Opera may be seen as an elite art form, but the Met’s auditions are remarkably egalitarian. The entrance fee is $30. Dianne Rubin, who organizes Buffalo’s Met auditions, notes that the number of singers is constantly changing, up until show time.
“It varies from day to day depending on who decides to cancel,” she said. “We have 59 at the present time.”
Any singer is free to register for any district’s auditions, so the Buffalo audition includes a lot of out-of-towners. About half of Saturday’s singers are from Canada.
Like Wright, Rubin has noticed the Met scouting occasionally for particular voices. “There was one year the grand finals produced at least three winners who were bass baritones.”
This year could be a soprano year. “We’re heavy on sopranos, I’m sorry to say,” Rubin laughed. Partly in response to that turnout, she arranged for two soprano judges. One is Wagner specialist Margaret Jane Wray, who sings with the Seattle Opera, and the other is Ruth Golden, formerly a leading soprano with the New York City Opera. Joining them on the panel is tenor Carroll Freeman, professor of opera at the Georgia State University School of Music.
Each singer submits a list of four other arias he or she has prepared, arias the judges could ask to hear.
Wright’s list includes arias from Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” and Gian Carlo Menotti’s radio opera “The Old Maid and the Thief.” Rounding out his list is “Pierrot’s Dancing Song” from “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Viennese-born composer known for his scores to such films as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Captain Blood.”
The winners of Saturday’s auditions will go on to the Detroit Opera House for the Great Lakes Region competition. The winners of the Detroit round will travel to New York City for the semifinals and the grand finals, in which they compete on the Met stage for a $15,000 cash prize.
In a way, everyone wins. The singers get the experience. And the audiences get the thrill.
“It’s always good,” Rubin promised. “It’s different every year. And I’m always looking forward to it. There are always some nice surprises.”