Everett McCorvey didn't know what to expect six years ago when he visited Pearse Lyons' office at the Alltech campus in Nicholasville for the first time.
"He came in, and then these two women came in, and they had a full-color flier for the 'Alltech Opera Scholarship Competition,'" McCorvey said. "He said, 'Now you go figure out how to create the best opera scholarship competition in the world.'"
The idea was not born of any great love for opera, Lyons says.
"I much prefer light opera," he says. "But when I see someone like Everett McCorvey, who is such an asset to this area, we want to promote them. We wanted to make this a great music program and saw that the catalyst could be a great vocal competition."
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The sixth annual Alltech Vocal Scholarship Competition will be Saturday afternoon at the Singletary Center for the Arts, when 15 singers square off for a chance at full scholarships to UK and five-figure stipends. Winners must attend UK to collect the reward.
McCorvey says the competition has had a profound effect on UK's voice program.
"Before, we were a program rising, but not quickly because of the budget constraints of luring singers here," McCorvey says. "The best singers know they can go somewhere and get scholarship money."
Now, students say they can't get scholarship money anywhere else like what Alltech is offering.
Two years ago, Amanda Balltrip was at the end of a successful undergraduate career at UK. The soprano, who grew up in Hazard, thought she needed to test the waters outside of her home state. She had attractive offers from prestigious voice programs, including the Manhattan School of Music and Indiana University.
Then she won the Alltech competition.
"Indiana doesn't offer that kind of support," Balltrip said of the full-ride scholarship she received to UK and other rewards. "I would have gone into a lot of debt."
Instead, she has performed leading roles in numerous UK Opera productions and has traveled to sing in Ireland and New York.
Dione Johnson, who earned a master's degree at the prestigious University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, says she initially wouldn't have thought of coming to UK for a doctorate. But she couldn't ignore the Alltech competition.
"I remember after I sang my first piece how much energy and excitement I felt from the audience," says Johnson, who has had several high-profile roles in UK Opera productions, including Clara in the current production of Porgy and Bess.
McCorvey says the competition is always held during an opera production so competitors can get a sense of what kind of productions UK presents. Porgy and Bess, McCorvey and Lyons say, is prime evidence of the competition's success: Numerous leading roles are filled by Alltech scholars, including Porgy, which will be sung Saturday night by 2010 graduate winner Michael Preacely.
The baritone was pursuing music part-time in 2009 when he was laid off from his day job, a customer-service position in Mount Laurel, N.J.
"It was a blessing in disguise because it made me decide to pursue music full-time," says Preacely, who moved to Lexington with his wife and two children after the Alltech competition win paved his way back to school.
"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."
For area opera lovers, the competition is a chance to see the next generation of UK opera singers.
"It's like the Met competition," McCorvey says of the Kentucky District round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, held each fall at Memorial Hall. "The difference is the winners will be coming to UK."