Saturday's Kentucky District round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions ended with four singers advancing to the regional competition, and the University of Kentucky had two of them.
The Kentucky District round of the most prestigious opera competition in the country usually advances three winners to its regional round. But this year, citing the quality of the competitors, the judges elected to send four singers to the Mid-South Regionals on Feb. 5 in Memphis.
The two UK singers: Reginald Smith Jr., who had to take a Greyhound bus overnight from his home in Atlanta to audition for UK's voice program in 2007 and ended up getting a full scholarship; and soprano Holly Elizabeth Flack, who won the encouragement award at last year's district round and took it seriously. That should be encouraging to this year's encouragement award winner, UK soprano Mary Hollis Hundley.
Smith and Flack will be joined in Memphis by soprano Andrea Trusty, an Ezel native and Morehead State University graduate who also advanced to the regionals two years ago, and mezzo-soprano Ursula Kuhar, an Indiana University student who was thrilled to be auditioning for one of her heroes, world-renowned bass-baritone Samuel Ramey.
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"When he called my name, I said, 'Did Samuel Ramey just say my name, or is there another Ursula Kuhar in the competition," said the mezzo, who was first on stage when the competition started at 10 a.m. Saturday.
This is the second year the Kentucky District round has had morning and afternoon sessions as the field now routinely tops two-dozen entries. This year, 25 singers tried out.
Another change this year is that Kentucky is now part of the Mid-South Region instead of the Tri-State that included Ohio and Indiana. Now, the Kentucky winners will face winners from the Arkansas district and two districts in Tennessee.
Trusty, who has been in other singing competitions in Tennessee and surrounding states said, "The competition down there is fierce. It won't be easy."
She and her fellow winners all said they were advancing because of hard work.
Following her District win in 2008, Trusty said she refined her repertoire and benefitted from study with opera star Marilyn Horne at a summer program.
At Saturday's audition, Smith was being judged by the premier singer in his voice. He said it got intimidating when Ramey asked him to sing an aria from Handel's Orlando that he had just watched Ramey sing Friday night on YouTube.
"It's a great next step for him," Smith's voice teacher, Everett McCorvey said. "He'll be heard at another level."
After getting last year's encouragement award, Flack said she was determined to get to the next level, immediately choosing audition pieces and getting to work on them last spring.
"Now the work really begins," Flack said, looking forward to the regionals. "It feels like I've stepped things up."