Amanda Balltrip was going to take this year off from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Kentucky District auditions.
After receiving two consecutive encouragement awards, which came with a cash prize but didn't include a trip to the next round of competition, "I thought it was time to take a break and come back ready to win next year," the University of Kentucky soprano said.
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But the October death of her beloved voice teacher Gail Robinson pointed her in a different direction.
"She said, 'Never miss an opportunity to get experience,' " Balltrip said of Robinson.
So, Balltrip went ahead, entered, and won.
She got to savor the victory with two longtime friends who also won: University of Kentucky countertenor Christopher Conley and West Liberty resident and Morehead State University graduate Andrea Trusty, a mezzo-soprano. All three advanced to the Tri-State Regional Round of the competition Jan. 18 in Cincinnati. The winner of that round goes on to the national rounds in New York.
It was an especially sweet victory for UK, because the competition was as tough as anyone could remember in the district round.
"We heard a lot of extraordinary voices," said Arthur B. Casper, Tri-State Region chairman. "Of all the Kentucky auditions, this is the best one I heard."
Over four hours in the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall Saturday, 17 singers sang 38 arias to determine three winners and an encouragement award winner. University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music soprano Amita Prakash won this year's encouragement honor, but does not advance to the regionals.
It was a competition that went into overtime.
After each singer performed the requisite two arias, judges Catherine Malfitano and Paul Groves, both acclaimed singers at the Met and around the world, called back four singers for another listen, including Prakash.
"Please do not be discouraged if you are not chosen today," Malfitano told the singers before announcing the winners. "There are early starters and late starters and better days and worse days in this profession."
Conley has had good days at the district for three straight years. But he thought this might not be his year, particularly looking at the competition.
Going by the logic that the judges would probably advance only one countertenor — a high male voice — he had a daunting competitor in Michael Match. The Indiana University countertenor had just spent a year with the world-renowned vocal ensemble Chanticleer.
"He has a lot more experience than me," Conley said. "I'm really thankful for how this turned out."
Now, Conley says he has to focus on how to break out of the regionals, where the competition has ended for him the last two years.
"The feedback I've always gotten is I need to be deeper in the piece," Conley said. "I need to have more emotion and feeling and all those things in my voice."
Conley and Trusty are both Morehead State University graduates, and all three winners had a person in common: Morehead associate professor of voice Roma Prindle. Balltrip studied with Prindle before coming to UK, and Conley and Trusty both had her when they went to Morehead for their bachelor's degrees.
"This is a big day for her, and a big day for us," said Trusty, who went on to graduate school at Rice University in Houston, where she studied with former UK professor Stephen King.
Reflecting on the announcement of the winners, Trusty said, "We've known each other for such a long time. Amanda and I were thrilled to be there together, and then, when they called Chris, we couldn't believe it, that we were all there together."