Derek Wang: Hello. I'm Derek Wang. Tonight, five young singers, five show-stopping arias, five winners of the 2023 George and Nora London Foundation Competition, all on this edition of the Young Artists Showcase.
Derek Wang: Welcome to the Young Artists Showcase. We are generously underwritten, as we've been for over 45 years, by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Tonight is for the opera buffs. And if you don't think you identify as one just yet, stick with us this hour, and you will be. That's because we have the pleasure of hearing the five winners of the annual competition that the George and Nora London Foundation for Singers has been running for 51 years. The idea is simple enough, winnow down over 150 applications from young American and Canadian opera singers to no more than 15 finalists. Then, each finalist has one aria to impress the judges and a New York audience. Up to five winners receive awards of $12,000 each.
We're going to be treated to performances from this year's finals, which took place at the Morgan Library and Museum on February 17th. First up, soprano Karoline Podolak, who chose Philine's aria from the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas for her prize-winning performance at the London Competition Finals. Here's how Karoline introduced this aria, which is an unabashed celebration of the voice itself.
Karoline Podolak: So, Philine is a-- she's an actress. And, um, this is an-- basically, a showcase aria, where she's, um, in the character of Titania. So, she's repeating that she is Titania, she is the blonde with blue eyes, and it's basically her, um, yeah, having a great time, uh, showing herself off. Um, the whole opera is kind of like a-- k-kind of like a soap opera, there's like a jealousy between Mignon and her, uh, Philine. I really love singing this aria. Um, the fact that it's me singing Philine, singing Titania, I don't know, it helps me get into it and I just- I just kind of put on a-- an act, you know, and I-I have a great time just imagining myself as this triumphant Titania.
[MUSIC - Thomas: “Je suis Titania” from Mignon]
Derek Wang: Karoline Podolak, 2023 George London Award winner, singing Philine's aria from Ambroise Thomas's Mignon, Je suis Titania. "I am Titania, daughter of the air," and she continued, laughing, "I travel the world more gaily than a bird, more swiftly than lightning." I asked Karoline what it felt like to be able to make such a dizzying aria sound like it was just tossed off.
Karoline Podolak: It's a really great feeling knowing that, you know, you work so hard o-on the craft, and it takes a lot of patience and, you know, it doesn't come right away, and this aria really showcases all the aspects, I think, of the voice. Um, so to be able to get to that point is very special. And before I go on stage, what I usually tell myself is, "All right. Sing it with ease. Like, pinpoint those notes," um, and then I go on there, and I just kind of, you know, get into the moment and-and, um, and it works. So, I-I'm very happy, um, and it was an amazing experience at the competition that, you know, came together in that way.
Derek Wang: Congratulations, Karoline. Next, we move from these virtuosic heights to the depths, the despair and foreboding of Lensky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Lensky meditates on mortality as he awaits his opponent in a duel. Tenor Ricardo Garcia introduces his approach to this aria, which begins with a plaintive cry, Kuda, Kuda.
Ricardo Garcia: "Where, where have you gone, you know, uh, my golden days of spring?" Is what he says. Where, where, where. Um, and it is just so interesting to dive into that because this man is so, so, so in touch with-with his words, unlike any other character that I've known.
Derek Wang: This is tenor Ricardo Garcia. I asked Ricardo how he steps into that connection with the character's inner thoughts.
Ricardo Garcia: It's really easy for me to have the-the connection here, especially because, uh, I've-- I have a significant, I have a wife, um, and-and so it's very easy for me to kind of go in the mode of-of feeling like Lensky does in that moment and acting as if though, you know, if I lost Jenna, if I knew that I was gonna go into a battle that I was going to perish in, I was going to die in with somebody else who I really loved as, you know, as a brother.
Like, you know, if I went to into battle with my brother and I knew I was gonna die, what would I say, you know, to Jenna in those last moments? So, um, it's really [chuckles] the-- it's really emotional for me. And, you know, like in-- I-I remember singing in the- in the competition and just feeling that emotion in such a huge, huge way. Um, and at one point, he finally says her name and it's almost like the sun comes out when-when he says her name.
Derek Wang: And that name of course is Olga. Here is Ricardo Garcia's performance from the George and Nora London Foundation competition, Lensky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
[MUSIC - Tchaikovsky: “Kuda, Kuda” from Eugene Onegin]
Derek Wang: From Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, that was Lensky's aria sung by 2023 George London Award winner, Ricardo Garcia. So I was wondering, with Ricardo and I asked, thank goodness, how is it that he can balance having that tremendous emotional space, that vulnerability, with also doing the athletic task of singing a big aria? Ricardo's answer, "A lot of hard work." And as a former baseball player himself, hard work is his home base.
Ricardo Garcia: I played professional baseball. I was a baseball player my whole life. Um, but the-the-- what-- it ties into what I-- what didn't get weeded out of my life was the discipline that baseball brings to your life. And I was able to apply that, um, in a way, uh, to opera that was so-- it was incredibly valuable. One thing that my dad- my dad told me, and I think, um, he-he heard this, but he took me to Michael Jordan's trainer.
And, uh, he's like, "Hey, what do you wanna be when you grow up?" And I told him, I think I was like nine. I was like, "I wanna be a major league baseball player." And he goes, "What are you doing to be that?" And I said, "Well, I'm doing this and this and this and that." And he goes like this. And he looked at me and he grabbed me by the shoulders. And I'll never forget this. And I still think about it every time that I go on stage.
And he says, "If you think the price of winning is too high, wait till you get the bill from regret." And he said, "And regret," he goes, "That bill- that bill and that regret is generations and somebody has to pay that off. Is that gonna be you?" And my dad told me that before-- [chuckles] even before I came here to Houston. And it was- it was the most incredible thing that has been kind of like something that has led my entire life. If you think the price of winning is too high, wait till you get the bill from regret.
Derek Wang: Wow. So, it's balance paid then for Ricardo Garcia. Bravo. We'll be back after the break with the next of our five George London Award winners, but first, while we're in this brooding Russian phase of tonight's program, here's another performance from the competition's finals by base baritone William Sokolof. Recorded live at the Morgan Library, this is Aleko's Cavatina from Rachmaninoff's Aleko.
[MUSIC - Rachmaninoff: “Ves’ tabar spit” from Aleko]
Derek Wang: From Sergei Rachmaninoff's Aleko, the title character's Cavatina, marvelously performed by bass-baritone William Socolof, and pianist Michael Fennelly, whom we've been hearing at the piano in all of tonight's performances. This is the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase on WQXR. We'll be back with more from the George and Nora London Foundation Competition after this short break.
Welcome back, I'm Derek Wang, and you're listening to the Young Artists Showcase on WQXR. We're returning now to the 2023 George London Award winners. George London, of course, the bass-baritone in the 20th century, American and Canadian, who started the competition after remembering his own early career struggles. It's a grueling time for many young singers in which any boost helps. And that boost here is the $12,000-George London Award given by the George and Nora London Foundation. Recently renamed to honor his late wife, who was the president of the competition until last year.
So, Puccini's next, and we have an aria which I'm gonna go out on a limb and call one of his most underrated. Really, the way Amber R. Monroe sings it, I think you'll also be wondering why we don't hear it all the time. And this is Fidelia's aria, Addio mio dolce amor, from Puccini's Edgar. Amber tells us more.
Amber R. Monroe: So, this is actually, um, a scene in which she's attending Edgar's funeral, but though he's not actually dead. She doesn't know that though. So, she's just giving her last goodbyes. It is a very heartfelt aria. And in-in the aria, she's also saying to wait for her because she's still, through all of the events that have happened thus far within the opera, she still remained true to Edgar. And so even in death, she's willing to join him again.
[MUSIC - Puccini: “Addio mio dolce amor” from Edgar]
Derek Wang: Soprano Amber R. Monroe, 2023 George London Award winner, singing Fidelia's aria, Addio mio dolce amor from Puccini's Edgar. Like so many of Puccini's greatest moments, this one happens in a flash. It's really surprisingly short for me, given the punch it packs. So I asked Amber how she channeled the confidence to make every moment count.
Amber R. Monroe: Um, honestly, every time I walk onto my stage, it's a lot of prayer, uh, for sure to-- uh, for the Lord to give me that confidence. But I really try to tap into figures that I know, strong women, especially that I know. And for that one in particular, um, my mother was my inspiration because she is just one of the most confident people. Every time she walks into the room, everyone notices her. So-- and I-- one of the pieces that I hold dear right now, I was wearing a necklace that she had recently bought me that showcases African beading. And so-- I don't know, it was something about putting all of that on, it was just-- it was easy to go and tap into that-that confidence there.
Derek Wang: Our conversation turned toward Amber's unexpected discovery of opera when she was a college student.
Amber R. Monroe: So I do come from a musical family, though we really based on, um, gospel, jazz, R&B. So opera was not something that was in my household. It was actually kind of one of those things that we looked at ourselves as African Americans and would like, "We don't do that type of thing." Um, [laughs] so-- but it was like, little did I know. I ended up going to, um, Tuskegee University in Alabama. I was majoring in animal science at the time, and I always wanted to be in like a choir at school, but my mom forced me to be in the band at first. So when I went to college, I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna finally do and join the choir." And I literally was just mimicking my big sister that was sitting behind me because I had never had any type of classical training or anything like that.
And so my choir director came up to me one day and he was like, "You know, you should- you should really look into this." So he gave me an aria. Um, I auditioned for a program in which we spent like five weeks in Italy. Um, and that's really where I fell in love with the culture of opera. It was like being immersed in it. You couldn't help but fall in love with it. So I went into this office the next semester and I was like, "Sir, I don't know much about this opera thing, but if you give me places to apply and audition, I will try it out." And I've been walking down this path ever since.
Derek Wang: And for Amber, it's a path that's crossed with Puccini's greatest heroines most recently Mimi at the Washington National Opera where she's in the Young Artists Program. She's also taken on roles in new operas, including the title role in Nkeiru Okoye's, Harriet Tubman Opera, When I Crossed that line to Freedom. Amber, congratulations. Our next George London Award winner combines a specialization in baroque music with one in new music. And as a countertenor, he's equally in demand in both repertoires. This is Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who's going to introduce Stille amare from Handel's Tolomeo.
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen: So this is sung by the title character Tolomeo at the very end of the opera, and it's a-- uh, it's quite a moment. He has been betrayed by everyone, his family, his beloved, he's-he's really been left behind and he's being forced now to drink a-a death potion. And, uh, that's what happens. In between the recitative there's this big kind of outburst, accompagnato recitative, where he's cursing everyone who has cursed him. Then he sort of remembers and sees his beloved Seleuce and sings to her that she should not weep when he's gone. But, uh, there's this, uh, kind of maxim that we say, "Don't cry becover-- because it's over, smile because it happened." Um, which I think of as sort of a kind of joking line in society today, but that's sort of what he's saying in this moment.
Derek Wang: Aryeh is talking about the first section with all those emotional contrasts, the recitative. What happens on stage next before the aria proper is something you'll have to imagine for yourself.
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen: In between the recite and the aria, he drinks the death potion, um, and slowly feels the effects taking over his body. And, um, it's one of the only times we see this in Handel, where in the da capo, in-in the recap, he dies halfway or he-he passes out, basically, halfway through the da capo and he-he literally dies in the middle of a phrase, um, in the middle of a word.
Derek Wang: So it's pretty crazy stuff. But Aryeh not only relishes that craziness, but makes it real. Here's Tolomeo's death scene, the aria Stille amare from Handel's Tolomeo.
[MUSIC - Handel: “Inumano fratel…Stille amare” from Tolomeo]
Derek Wang: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, recipient of a 2023 George London Award, in a live performance at the competition finals at the Morgan Library. That was an aria from Handel's Tolomeo, sung by the title character as he dies on stage, Stille Amare, Bitter Tears. Well, this being Opera Night, we've got death, and now, madness. That's right, we're closing out with the great operatic mad scene. But first, we're going to meet soprano Erika Baikoff, our last George London Award winner tonight.
Erika is a native New Yorker and recent graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met recently had her back to perform in four boroughs as part of their summer recital series. Being a young artist at the Met involves covering a lot of roles, and being on call all the time to make the last-minute substitution means that there's gonna be some hectic days.
Erika Baikoff: That performance particularly was quite mad because I was covering Naneta at the Met then, and then Naneta happened to fall ill. And so I was rehearsing for her and wasn't sure I would actually make it to the competition, but they very kindly held the curtain for me. And I literally arrived, threw on my dress, sang, and that was that.
Derek Wang: It might have been a quick change of costume, but it was a big change into one of the most famous women in theatrical history, Ophelia, or in this French opera version, Ophélie, whose aria makes fireworks out of madness. I asked Erika what makes this iconic scene real for her.
Erika Baikoff: Reasoning with reason, I guess. Um, I don't think a mad scene means that you're actually mad, or crazy, or irrational. I just think that circumstances have driven to the-- you to the point where you don't know what is reasonable or logical anymore. Um, and so here, I think she's just quite fed up with all the-the games and the lies. And, um, I think she wants to have a turn at it too, but for her, the stakes are much higher, um, because she's about to drown herself in the lake after she understands that Hamlet is never going to marry her and it's not her fault.
Derek Wang: The shocking thing in this music is that Ophelia's would-be anger is actually channeled into weirdly effusive joy. For example, you'll hear her premonition of drowning, but then right afterwards, an energetic waltz in her famous speech with flowers.
Erika Baikoff: During the waltz that you're referring to, she's really setting up the kind of dream wedding that she thought she would have or really wanted. Um, and, you know, she sees herself, but also sees herself from a different perspective, and so there are kind of two Ophelias in the scene that she's kind of interacting between. Um, and just vocally, it's also very exciting 'cause there are so many different parts of the voice that you can explore. And so yeah, I think it's really cool. It's kind of like a-a circus aria in the sense that you really get to show everything.
Derek Wang: Well, now we're dying to hear it. And here it is. A vos jeux, mes amis, Ophelia's aria, from Thomas's Hamlet.
[MUSIC - Thomas: “A vos jeux, mes amis” from Hamlet]
Derek Wang: That was Ophelia's mad scene from Ambroise Thomas' French adaptation of Hamlet. So maybe I should say, Hamlet. We heard soprano Erika Baikoff, Bravo, Erika, and pianist Michael Fennelly, whom we heard in all of tonight's performances, recorded live at the 2023 finals of the George and Nora London Foundation Competition at the Morgan Library here in New York City.
Dear listeners, thanks for joining us on this episode of the Young Artists Showcase. For 45 years and counting, we've been underwritten by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. We're truly grateful, and here is Terry McGraw with more.
Terry McGraw: Good evening, everyone. It's great to be with you and it's always great being with the Young Artists Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the showcase, and I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR, and there's so much more to come.
Derek Wang: Thank you, Terry, from all of us here at WQXR. And my thanks to our program producers, Laura Boyman and Max Fine, and of course, our generous program underwriter, the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. This is Derek Wang. It's been a pleasure to be with you tonight.
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