COC Ensemble Competition (2022) Gives Young Canadian Talent a Shot at Opera Stardom

Reconvening after a quieter, virtual audition process in the past couple years, the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Competition 2022 served as the capstone for a year-long competition drawing in the best and brightest young opera talent from across the country.

Winners of the 2022 COC Ensemble Competition. [Photo courtesy of COC 2022.]
Prize-winners Karoline Podolak (1st Prize and Audience Award), Hannah Crawford (2nd Prize), and River Guard and Wesley Harrison (Joint 3rd Prize) impressed the Four Seasons Centre audience with their thrilling performances at the gala/competition night on November 3rd. Based on what we heard and saw, this year’s jury, made up of mezzo-soprano superstar J’Nai Bridges, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, COC General Director Perryn Leech; and COC Director of Artistic Planning Roberto Mauro, made the right call.

Podolak’s double-prize winning performance of “Sempre Libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata was the clear standout – and not only because she happened to select the best aria from this writer’s favourite opera for her audition piece. Future auditioners take note, Podolak did everything you were supposed to do: sing beautifully, land the high notes, and demonstrate an emotional connection to the piece. Acting is such a central part of opera, and Podolak has already demonstrated an early talent for combining musical and dramatic expressiveness.

Of the remaining contenders, we were partial to tenor Wesley Harrison, who tied for 3rd Prize. His performance of the lovely “Il mio Tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni was technically accomplished, while capturing the soulfulness of a young man’s consoling words for his grieving lover. In Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio can be something of a pathetic figure, spending most of the opera pining after Donna Anna, whose father has just been murdered and whose old flame Don Giovanni has reappeared to toy with her affections. (Spoilers: the murderer and the ex-lover are the same man!) Harrison, even in this one excerpt, managed to bring real feeling to Ottavio, a role we hope to see him in soon.

The gala/competition evening itself was a success, notwithstanding some dubious musical direction that had the orchestra regularly drowning out the performers on stage.

The COC orchestra are pros – they know how to support some of the greatest opera singers on the planet – and the fact that it was sometimes hard to hear the singers suggested a handful of possibilities. First, it’s possible that guest conductor Jacques Lacombe could not get a handle on the orchestra, subbing in on short notice for an indisposed Johannes Debus. It’s also possible that Lacombe was ill-prepared for the (understandably) anxiety-laced performances of young performers who failed to sufficiently project their voices. It’s also possible, loath as we are to suggest this, that the orchestra was artificially amplified, which would certainly be a strange choice for an orchestra which we just raved about in the recent Carmen. Whatever the reason, it’s ultimately the Music Director’s responsibility for ensuring that the voices are heard; the COC Ensemble competitors deserved better.

The Canadian Opera Company’s 2022-2023 season continues in January 2023 with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, one of the most sublimely funny (and simply sublime) operas in the repertoire. For tickets to this year’s season, check out the COC website here.