Last week I was interviewing baritone Blake Denson about his starring role as Joe in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of “Show Boat” when he mentioned that he was a winner of one of the university’s Alltech Vocal Scholarships, and I reflexively thought, “Of course you are.”
In the last decade of covering the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre, it has almost become a given that students leading the program in productions and competitions would be Alltech Scholars. In fact, I would daresay that while 20 years ago the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions were something of an end-all, be-all for the program, the Alltech auditions are now on something of a parallel level.
They do different things: the Met auditions mean national exposure and notoriety for opera singers, but the Alltech competition gives students a chance — in some cases, literally — to study in a program that has a proven track record of getting students to that level.
The story of how it began is now something of UK Opera legend: Program director Everett McCorvey was summoned to the office of Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons in the mid-aughts and presented with a flier for the “Alltech Opera Scholarship Program.” McCorvey recalled, “He said, ‘Now you go figure out how to create the best opera scholarship competition in the world.’”
That competition celebrates its 13th edition Sunday, just four days after Lyons’ death Thursday from complications following heart surgery. At the competition, prospective undergraduate and graduate students will sing for portions of $500,000 in scholarship funds that, in some cases, may open the door to go to college.
Reginald Smith Jr., is another one of the legends of the Alltech competition. He was an aspiring singer who had to take a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to Lexington to audition for the UK Opera program in 2007. He was invited to join the program and then asked to sing the next day in the second annual Alltech competition, where he won a full ride to UK.
“When you come from a low-income family, and someone tells you that you can go to school for free ...” Smith told me in a 2010 interview.
Alltech’s ... really Lyons’ investment was in Smith who went on to become UK’s second winner of the Met auditions and now enjoys a career in houses such as the Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Talking to students over the years, they have said that the Alltech scholarships were key factors in picking UK over big name music schools such as Indiana University and the Manhattan School of Music, in some cases. In a 2011 story about the competition, soprano Amanda Balltrip said she was looking at going to graduate school elsewhere but, “I would have gone into a lot of debt,” and baritone Michael Preacely said it led him to pursue music full time.
“It helps students do well in their craft and not have to worry about getting other jobs to pay the rent or eat,” Preacely says. “We can really devote ourselves to this program.”
The scholarship program was not the only way Lyons supported UK Opera. He created the annual Celebration of Song concerts featuring UK student and faculty singers each holiday season at The Square, helped support positions at UK and other schools for vocal faculty, flew Alltech winners and UK faculty around the world to sing at a variety of events, presented UK talent well beyond the opera program at the 2010 and 2014 World Equestrian Games and provided opportunities for students to teach children in a choir in Haiti.
But it is the scholarship program that built the foundation for much of that and helped UK’s star rise in the opera world.
“When I see someone like Everett McCorvey, who is such an asset to this area, we want to promote them,” Lyons said in 2011. “We wanted to make this a great music program and saw that the catalyst could be a great vocal competition.”
McCorvey wrote Thursday in a tribute to Lyons, “One of the reasons why we have so many wonderful singers at UK now is because of the Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition. It has changed the face of UK Opera Theatre.”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes
If you go
Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition
What: Scholarship competition of prospective University of Kentucky undergraduate and graduate voice students.
When: 2 p.m. March 11
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.