Van Edwards says he does not think most people in Columbia have any idea of the talent that comes to town annually. During the fourth Saturday of every January, for the past 40-plus years, auditions held in Columbia provide a chance to compete for the ultimate opportunity: singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. And some of the winners, a few who have been locals, have embarked on successful worldwide singing careers.
While “the Met” opened in 1883 in New York City because a group of wealthy businessmen desired their own personal theater, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions program began in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1954. Over the years, these auditions have expanded to 42 districts and 12 regions, which include the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The Southeast Region involves Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Middle and East Tennessee, and West Tennessee.
The Met, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City, between West 62nd and 65th streets and Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, has long been considered the world’s premier stage for the most creative and talented singers, conductors, composers, musicians, stage directors, designers, visual artists, choreographers, and dancers.
In fact, each season the Met stages more than 200 opera performances attended by more than 800,000 people. As of late, millions more experience the Met through new media distribution initiatives and state-of-the-art technology. For example, in December 2006 the company launched The Met: Live in HD, a series of performance transmissions shown live in high definition in movie theaters globally, which gives the artists more exposure.
Suffice it to say, becoming one of the handful of performers at the Met is a big deal — a once in a lifetime chance.
If You Build It, They Will Come …
This same premise from Field of Dreams was considered when deciding whether or not to host an audition for the Met in Columbia, 710 miles away from America’s largest city, in the 1960s. Of the 42 districts in North America, Columbia is now one of those in the subdivision of the Southeast Region. Essentially, Columbia provides one of the initial stages to kick off the annual national auditions, which wrap up in New York City in April.
Van has — along with Bettie, his wife — been attending and assisting with the MONC SC Auditions in various ways for many years. The couple began overseeing operations in 2009 as co-directors. “At that time the National Council Office in New York was considering combining the South Carolina Auditions with the North Carolina Auditions, which are held in Charlotte,” says Van. The MONC SC Auditions needed support to stay in Columbia. The Edwards pooled resources and enlisted friends to raise the necessary $12,000 it takes to organize and present the MONC SC Auditions.
“It’s now one of the most successful in the South,” says Van. Annually, aspiring singers clamor for the chance to present their voices at the MONC SC Auditions. Only 40 spots are open, and at least 300 attend the one-day event.
Winners of the MONC SC Auditions go on to vie for the Southeast Regional title before heading to New York City to train and prepare for a semi-final event. All regional winners sing on stage at the Met, and judges narrow winners down to 10 or so for the Grand National Finals, held annually in April. At the Grand National Finals, the singers perform with the full Met orchestra and a packed house of opera scouts and representatives of opera companies from around the world.
“It’s a very exciting event,” says Van of the finals. “But they all are.”
Aspiring singers learn about the MONC SC Auditions through their voice coaches and other avenues and do not have to be from South Carolina. The 40 who are chosen as competitors for the Southeast Region must meet specific criteria, outlined on MetOpera.org as including:
-Singers must be under 30 years of age (proof of age is required);
-Singers must have had extensive vocal training and experience;
-Singers must present a head shot, detailed resume, application, and $30 entrance fee; and,
-Singers must apply by Dec. 31 of the year prior to the auditions.
Judges for the MONC SC Auditions and other tiers of the competition all have extensive backgrounds in opera.
Van says he encourages singers to attend an annual MONC SC Audition before applying to compete the following year so that they can see and understand the process. “They must have excellent language skills as well as voice. You can tell from their resumes where they have sung, studied, and such.”
Besides winning a chance to move on to the regional competition, the MONC SC Auditions’ purse for three winners is $1,200 each. Sometimes “Encouragement Awards” are given, at the judges’ discretion, of around $400 to a few others who show promise. Regional winners in Atlanta, Georgia, win $7,000 to $8,000. If an audition winner is talented and fortunate enough to be one of four to six winners at the Grand National Finals, he or she receives $15,000 and, most importantly, extensive exposure for a career as an opera star.
Those who attend the MONC SC Auditions are always stunned at the level of talent, says Van. “If you come, you’ll be amazed because I don’t think that you’ll hear this kind of singing anywhere else in South Carolina.”
Many from South Carolina who have competed in the MONC SC Auditions have gone onto experience successful careers, regardless if they won. But some have been fortunate enough to know the glory that comes with winning.
Ann Benson, artist-in-residence at Coastal Carolina University, competed in the MONC SC Auditions in the early 1980s and won. Then she went on to compete and win other auditions. Her parents, the late Lanny and Sidney J. Palmer, began taking their young daughter to the regionals in Atlanta, Georgia, at an early age.
“As a child I thought, ‘I will never be able to compete in the Met Auditions,’ but I did,” says Ann. “It’s not an elitist event, but it’s definitely the Olympics of voice. Young serious singers have to adhere to a certain formality and decorum. And the [MONC SC Auditions] set you up, equip you, for future auditions all over the world. It was irreplaceable to have that experience.”
Ann, born and raised in Columbia, explained that at the MONC SC Auditions, singers must have prepared five arias in different languages. The pieces must be diverse. The singer chooses one to perform, and then the judges can randomly ask the singer to perform one or more of the other choices.
Ann, originally a soprano and later a mezzo-soprano, was in graduate school when she first auditioned. She says that most competitors have completed undergraduate work and are involved in serious study and training regarding voice. The MONC SC Auditions and her extensive training prepared her to move to New York City in the early 1990s and successfully audition for the title role in Puccini’s Tosca at New York City Opera. She subsequently performed with symphony orchestras and opera companies throughout the United States and abroad before deciding to teach. She married tenor David Bankston, who also teaches at Coastal Carolina University. Plus, she has had the opportunity to serve as a teacher and coach for students interested in auditioning for the auditions.
Says soprano Kathleen Vandekieft, who auditioned in the 1970s, “What I most cherish and remember from the MONC SC Auditions’ experience is the sincere connection, kindness, and generosity of Columbia’s audience and the auditions’ directors and other South Carolina volunteers. Some MONC SC Auditions’ audience members were interested enough to follow me to the regionals, semi-finals, and final auditions,” she says. “For me, singing at the Metropolitan Opera House was a privilege in itself. Semi-finals and grand finals of the auditions were phenomenal experiences. Famous singers, conductors, coaches, and agents were in attendance the year I auditioned.”
Kathleen went on to become the leading soprano for the Augsburg Stadttheater in Germany for nine years. She has also performed numerous and various roles throughout the United States and Europe. When she was faced with ongoing travel away from family, she chose to enjoy a teaching career at Wofford College, Converse College, USC School of Music, and as associate professor at Presbyterian College. For several years, she participated in performance opportunities closer to South Carolina, the state she has called home since she attended Converse College and her family moved to Florence in the 1970s. She has also served on the Met’s audition roster as judge, lecturer, and recitalist and in Columbia as co-director of the MONC SC District Auditions.
Participating in the auditions has been a family affair. She explains, “My son, Ian Wright, continues to coordinate stage management of the singers at the auditions, honoring his late father, Dr. John T. Wright’s joy of helping backstage and the onstage volunteer efforts of his mother and grandparents, the late Alice and Richard Vandekieft. He loves being a part of Bettie and Van Edwards’ volunteer team. This exemplifies and embodies the grateful spirit generated by audience support from our Columbia community as the gift that keeps on giving.”
Kathleen’s advice to auditioners is to “realize that life continues following the Metropolitan Opera Auditions: win, lose, or draw.”
María Antúnez, a soprano originally from Uruguay who came to the United States in 2006 on scholarship to the College of Charleston, points out that the MONC SC Auditions are a “game changer” for an aspiring opera singer. “I won in South Carolina back in 2011 and then the regionals in Atlanta, making me a national semi-finalist, which gave me the incredible opportunity to go to the Met in New York. There we worked with coaches and performed on the Met’s stage for a panel of recognized judges and an audience of musicians, agents, critics, and others. It’s great exposure for a young singer.”
Even though María did not make it to the finals that year, the exposure earned her an audition for the Washington National Opera Young Artist Program. “They had heard me at the competition and decided that I fit the profile of the soprano they were looking for. I went to D.C. and sang for Plácido Domingo, who formally invited me to be part of his Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. There I worked for two years learning with famous teachers, coaches, singers, directors, and conductors, and I also performed in many main stage productions. It was definitely an experience that made me grow immensely as a singer and artist. Since then I have been singing in different productions nationally and abroad.”
In fact, in August she performed the South American premiere of Dulce Rosa, by Lee Holdridge, which is based on a story by Isabel Allende. “I did the world premiere with Los Angeles Opera back in 2013 under the baton of Plácido Domingo, who personally chose me for the leading role.”
The MONC SC Auditions 2019 will be Jan. 26 at the Wright Spears Center for the Arts, Columbia College, at 10 a.m. It is free to the public.
Interested in meeting the MONC SC Audition judges? Officials and local opera supporters will be at the fundraiser “Vive L’Opera” on Friday, Jan. 25 at the Lace House. Visit seauditions.org for more information.