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Operatunity knocks

MONDAY, OCT. 13, 2008

Sixteen singers perform in Spokane for Metropolitan Opera competition

For Inland Northwest opera lovers, the Fox was the place to be Sunday afternoon, as 16 of the area’s best young voices got their chance at a big-time career.

The Metropolitan Opera National Council held its district competition in Spokane, and the arias filled the Martin Woldson Theater.

Think of it as the high-brow version of “American Idol,” but with foreign lyrics, operatic voices that can hit notes Carrie Underwood couldn’t find with a ladder, and no snide comments from Simon Cowell.

Spokane is one of about 45 locations around the country this year that serves as a first step toward the Metropolitan Opera in New York. So the 16 singers – mostly sopranos, but a baritone and a tenor as well – got up to 10 minutes on stage with an accompanist to perform for a panel of judges and a small but enthusiastic audience.

Heather Holzapfel, of Spokane, who works in accounting and human resources for 180 Networks and performs with the Spokane Opera Company, gave her best with an aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”). Holzapfel, 29, has been singing opera since high school in North Pole, Alaska, and played the role of Gretel in a recent production of “Hansel and Gretel.”

“I just feel like the music talks to you. It really talks to your soul,” she said after her performance.

Opera may be talking to more souls than ever in America. Dennis Dunn, the Metropolitan Opera’s Northwest Regional co-chairman, said it’s the fastest growing performing art form in the country. There are five times as many local opera companies in the United States as there were 20 years ago. One of the biggest factors in that growth is the supertitle, a process that flashes a translation of a foreign libretto, or lyrics, onto a screen above the stage, he said.

Knowing what’s being sung enhances the appreciation of the music and the story, Dunn said, and leads a new generation of audiences to discover what others have known for centuries: “Opera is great theater.”

The quality of operatic singers in local companies also is improving. The average quality of singers at the district competitions is equal to what competition was at the regionals a dozen years ago, he said.

Roughly two dozen contestants will make it from the regionals to the New York finals in February. Judges will select 10 to 12 finalists for a grand public concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Up to five finalists can receive Grand Winner awards of $15,000, but any of the finalists is likely to land a spot with a major opera company, Dunn said.

Operatic singing is very competitive, he said, and the district competitions are “a chance to grab the bottom rung of the ladder.”

Carl Brunjes, a retired Spokane physician and opera lover, came to the Fox on Sunday to hear some of those up-and-coming voices.

“It’s not so much who’s going to win as the skill of the singers,” he said.

There was an extra draw, Brunjes and others in the audience said. The mistress of ceremonies was Patrice Munsel, a Spokane native who won a Metropolitan Opera competition in 1943 at age 17 and went on to become a leading soprano as well as a star of stage and television. Before the contest started, Munsel reminisced for the audience about growing up in Spokane, where she took lessons in dance, singing and whistling, showing up for her Met tryouts in bobby socks and saddle shoes, winning the competition and embarking on a career.

So if the audience wondered if a girl from Spokane can find happiness in the world of opera, theater, radio and television, Munsel had the answer: “Yes, she can.”

Perhaps a young woman from Rexburg, Idaho, can, too. That’s where the winner of Sunday’s competition, Gina Marie Sorensen, is from. She impressed the judges and the audience with arias from Antonin Dvorak and George Handel and won a slot in the regional competition in Seattle.

The winner of the audience balloting, Alyssa Doggett, is also from Rexburg. While she won’t be going to Seattle, Doggett, 20, and Amanda Campbell, 22, who is also from Rexburg, did receive Encouragement Awards, given to young singers in hopes that they’ll continue their studies and compete again.

For Holzapfel, Sunday’s competition may have been her last chance for a career with the Met. She’ll be 30 next year, which is the cutoff for the annual competition. But she felt good about her performance, and she’ll continue to audition and sing in local productions.

“It’s a really good arts town,” Holzapfel said.

Reach Jim Camden at (509) 459-5461 or via e-mail at

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