Eleven aspiring opera singers — eight of them from the voice program at the University of Kentucky — will take the stage at the Singletary Center for the Arts on Saturday to compete in the Kentucky District round of the 2016 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
As they take their shots in the storied competition, they can reflect on an immediate past success: UK Opera graduate Reginald Smith Jr. was one of five winners in the 2015 Met auditions, which concluded on New York's Metropolitan Opera stage in March.
For senior Mary Catherine Wright, the thought of Smith will provide a little boost.
"It shows that hard work can pay off," she says. "He came from here, so we have a sense of pride. Of course, it's in everyone's heads because we've had past winners, so it's almost as though there's a level of expectation."
Smith joined Gregory Turay, who won the competition in 1995, launching his professional career, as UK's Met Auditions winners. But over the years, several UK singers have risen to national semifinals and finals.
The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions are a nationwide vocal competition that can launch a career. In the 2015-16 season of auditions there are 42 district audition sites and 13 regional audition sites throughout the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Winners at the district level advance to their regional finals, which for Kentucky competitors will be in Memphis. Regional winners advance to the national semifinals in New York, and five winners are named at the grand finals concert at which the finalists perform with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Past winners include such luminaries as Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Frederica von Stade and Deborah Voigt.
"What's exciting for us is that Reggie comes back on a regular basis to Lexington for lessons, so the students really see him as one of them," says Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre. "And so it's a very similar situation to when Gregory Turay won — the students are interacting with their colleagues, and their colleagues scale the mountain. Then all of a sudden they realize it's possible for them to do the same."
This week, students such as doctoral candidate Shareese Arnold, Thabang Masango and Jonathan Parham rehearsed arias in anticipation of the competition. The singers pick one aria and prepare four others. The judges pick the second piece.
"To me, this is really exciting because the opera world is so small and so we're excited for people like Reggie starting here," Arnold says. "It means really anyone could do this."
The competition starts at 1 p.m. at the Singletary Center's recital hall. The event is free usually attracts hundreds of people. This year's judges are Jennifer Larmore, world-renowned mezzo-soprano; Marcus Kuchle, director of artistic operations at Cincinnati Opera; and Dan Novak, director of Chicago Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center. Cliff Jackson, associate professor of vocal coaching at UK Opera Theatre in the UK School of Music, will serve as the official accompanist.
As for Smith, he recalls the words of McCorvey, his former professor.
"You have to remember to sing to express and not to impress," he says in a phone interview from his home in Houston. "It's important to go and be an artist; they want to hear artistry and be moved."
Smith, who will return to Lexington for the Dec. 4 performance of Handel's Messiah at Christ Church Cathedral, says that last year he tried not to think too much about past winners, but "it's a wonderful legacy that springs from UK Opera Theater. I'm glad to be a part of that great tradition."