Eric Brown opened his e-mail Monday and gasped.
The 28-year-old baritone was slated to compete in the Kentucky District Round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Saturday afternoon. But according to the e-mail, so many people had entered, the auditions would begin in the morning.
"My heart stopped," said Brown, a graduate student in the University of Kentucky's voice department. "I think of singing as something you do at night, not in the morning."
But singing in the morning worked out just fine for Brown, who was one of four winners at Saturday's competition, the first step on a road that leads to the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera and a chance at joining the company's Young Artist Development Program.
Brown was joined by two graduate students from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, soprano Jeremy Parker and baritone R. Kenneth Stavert, and mezzo-soprano Paulette Maria Penzvalto, who studies at Oberlin Conservatory.
They competed in a record field of 27 singers. The Kentucky District usually attracts 15 to 20 hopefuls.
That quartet will compete with winners from the Southern Ohio and Indiana Districts of Met auditions at the Tri-State Regional Round Jan. 16 at Butler University. The next stop for the winner of that round is the national semi-finals at the Met.
Winning the Encouragement Award, but not advancing to the regionals, was coloratura soprano Holly Flack, a UK graduate student who just started studying with new UK voice professor Cynthia Lawrence.
Flack got the biggest curve ball from the audition judges, who always select one of the arias competitors sing, when they asked her to sing part of one aria, and then a third piece in its entirety.
Most competitors just sing two pieces.
"I thought, if they're spending that much time with me, I must be doing something right," Flack said. "It felt fabulous."
It should be noted, she got to sing in the afternoon, which she said she preferred.
Two people undaunted by the 10 a.m. start time for the auditions, which traditionally begin at 1 p.m., were Gary and Sadie Criswell of Lexington, who were planted in the third row of Memorial Hall from the third aria to the last.
"We sit here in awe, enjoying the music," Gary said. "We love to see the aspirations of young people and watch them use their skills."
The Criswells said they have been to all 10 Kentucky District auditions at Memorial Hall, Sadie making notes about the singers in a well-used composition notebook.
Like most people, she usually tries to pick out the winners, but this year, "I stopped around 20. There were too many of them, and they were all so good."
Auditions chair Dr. Clifton Smith delivered the most public of many shout-outs to UK vocal coach Cliff Jackson, who accompanied all 27 auditioners Saturday, tickling the ivories for 54-and-a-half arias.
"Some years, people make the mistake of bringing their own accompanist, but not this year," Smith said of the Iron Man pianist.
As for whether there may be more competitors at future auditions, Smith said he can cap the number of entries, but so far he hasn't. "They always say the more people that come to the party, the better."