Imagine that for a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment you could attend a wine and cheese party, followed by hearing arias that you helped select, sung by some of the best of today’s young opera talents. You could have had that this past Sunday simply by buying a ticket to Wolf Trap Opera’s “Aria Jukebox”. The singing alone was worth the modest price of admission, but getting there early allowed you entrance to the party and the opportunity to vote on which of four arias should be sung by each Filene Young Artist. The young artists were also at the party and available to meet and talk with patrons. This has become an annual affair for Wolf Trap Opera, so you will have another chance next year. Don’t miss out!
Thirteen of the Young Filene Artists sang the aria that got the most votes from the four they had prepared to sing. Alistair Kent was the only young artist not scheduled to perform; Alexandra Loutsion, who will star in Tosca on Friday at the Filene Center, was to perform, but had to withdraw. After all the young artists had sung, Filene Artist in Residence Simon O’Neill sang, and he spoke of his time as a young artist himself at Wolf Trap and the impact on his career. All soloists were ably accompanied on piano by WTO Opera Director Kim Whitman, who even provided some vocal back up for one of the young artists. Host Marcus Shields was an affable host adept at setting the scene for each aria.
I will comment a bit on the performances, but honestly, all the young artists are excellent, and mine are the personal opinions of an opera fan, not a professional critic. Further, as Mr. O’Neill noted in his comments, these are talented young performers who already have received top notch training and performance experience.
Last year, I thought the boys got the better of it in “Aria Jukebox”, but this year I think the gals held their own, even without Ms. Loutsion and though outnumbered 8-5. Leading off was second year tenor Shea Owens who sang a Meyerbeer aria from Dinorah. Mr. Owens has a fine voice and is a gifted stage performer. Next, bass Anthony Robin Schneider sang Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin, one of my favorite operas. He possesses a lovely bass voice and gave a convincing rendition of this aria. Then, the first soprano of the afternoon was up, Annie Rosen, who sang William Bolcom’s cabaret song “Amor”. Ms. Rosen provided a charming performance with an amusing vocal assist from Ms. Whitman. Following was Mackenzie Gotcher, who has become a favorite of mine. He sang “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca and sang beautifully with his strong tenor voice. I personally was hoping the group’s choice would be one of his other arias since I will be hearing him Friday night in Tosca. Soprano Madison Leonard performed Puccini’s wildly popular aria “O mio babbino caro”; she has a lovely voice and gave a gentle rendition to an appreciative audience. Tenor Nicholas Nestorak sang “Not While I’m Around” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; singing with such feeling he makes a very compelling Tobias. The first half of the concert was closed out in stellar fashion by WTO returnee Kihun Yoon whose powerful baritone commands your attention. Talking to him, I learned he is planning to return to home in Seoul, Korea after WTO to perform in the role of a father prior to taking off for performances in Germany. He sang Iago’s aria “Credo in un Dio crude” from Verdi’s Otello. I don’t know if he has more opportunity this year to display the softer side of his voice or if I am paying more attention to it now, but he is effective singing softly as well as with the power his is capable of. In my opinion, his was the most impressive performance to that point.
Leading off the second half was tenor Jonas Hacker, also a returnee from last year, who sang “Una furtive lagrima”, a hit aria from Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore. In my report on Aria Jukebox 2016, I stated that I anticipated a successful professional singing career for Mr. Hacker; he again demonstrated why. Soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin performed an aria from Gounod’s Faust, “Faites-lui mes aveux”, a pants role which she sang in a lovely dress. No matter, she has a strong voice and sang the love song with conviction. Next returnee, Richard Ollarsaba turned his powerful bass-baritone to the tender “Autumn Leaves” leaving us wanting more. At the reception, I learned that he will perform again in this area next spring when he will be performing with the Virginia Opera in their production of Lucia di Lammermoor. "Autumn Leaves" by Joseph Kosma was originally known as “Les fueilles mortes”, literally “the dead leaves”; and you ask what’s in a name. Soprano Summer Hassan, another WTO returnee, sang Debussy’s “Air de lia”. I found that I especially liked her voice in its lower register. WTO newbie, baritone Ben Edquist sang Papageno’s “Suicide” Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; I gathered from the audience reaction to the announcement of the winning selection there must have been a sizable contingent voting for a different aria. Mr. Edquist did justice to this popular aria and I look forward to hearing him again. Last in order among the Young Artists was Zoie Reams whose singing in the recent WTO production The Touchstone made me a fan. This young mezzo soprano made more fans with her warm rendition of “Amour, viens aider” from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. This closed out the performances by the Filene Young Artists, and I am certain they sold more tickets for WTO in the future.
But the show was not over. It was time for the Wolf Trap Artist in Residence to perform. This year that artist is opera star, heldentenor Simon O’Neill, especially well known for his Wagnerian roles. I was already impressed with Mr. O’Neill from a performance earlier this year in the Washington Concert Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Leonore. For Aria Jukebox, he sang not one, but two arias (nobody objected); the first was his choice and the second was the audience’s. He explained that he wanted to perform Wagner’s “Wintersturme” from Die Walkure with Ms. Witman accompanying to celebrate remembering his days as a Filene Young Artist and how it helped launch his Wagnerian career. It was an impressive performance, with an amusing moment when the young artists, out of sight, provided choral support. However, as impressive as it was, the best was yet to come. He sang the audience’s choice, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, one of world’s favorite arias, and he was simply sensational. I sat in my chair and thought, oh yeah, this is what opera is about. It was as though the Filene Young Artists had made a powerful statement and Mr. O’Neill had added the exclamation point!
The Fan Experience: On arrival at the wine and cheese reception you are given a small number of voting tokens, but not enough to vote on each Filene Young Artists selections. You can purchase more tokens or vote with bills to cast a vote in every artist’s “jukebox” or you can stuff the ballot box for a favorite. While I have no complaints at all with Aria Jukebox, I will respectfully put forward the suggestion to put the lists of arias to vote for online on the day before the performances. I needed a little time to think about the choices, especially when so many of the arias were unfamiliar to me, and it would free me up to spend more time chatting with the young artists at the reception.