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Houston opera legend Lois Alba launches fifth annual aria competition

A vintage promotional shot of opera legend Lois Alba
Photo courtesy of Lois Alba

The Fifth Annual Lois Alba Aria Competition is set to take place this coming weekend. Having drawn 86 budding opera singers from around the country, the two-day event features singers who have made it to the semi-finals. After selection by a panel of judges, a dozen or so finalists perform for the general public on Sunday, May 2nd at the University of St. Thomas.

In the life of an opera singer, competitions help establish reputations, open possibilities for future work and can provide needed funds for further education and training. Vocal artists scour websites like YAP Tracker in search of such competitions, most of which require singers to showcase themselves by performing arias, pieces usually from operas and composed for soloists with musical accompaniment.

A veteran opera singer and native Houstonian, Lois Alba is effusive in her enthusiasm and devotion to young vocal artists. With a career spanning decades in Europe and the US, since retiring she has dedicated her life to the advancement of aspiring singers, including mentoring and teaching students as well as publishing Vocal Rescue, an acclaimed book which conveys her simplified approach to singing. Years ago, she and husband Arthur Wachter founded the Soma International Foundation ("Soma" stands for Society of Musical Artists), “dedicated to offering aspiring singers the opportunity to compete for prize money, encourage exposure through public concerts and provide expert advice to further their careers in the field of opera.” The annual competition and a related fundraising gala are currently the Foundation’s main activities.

Talking with Alba is like a crash course in the world of opera, with references running the gamut from reflections on past performances to behind-the-scene tidbits like Pavarotti’s preferred lunch menu. She reflects, “I was happiest in the world when I was on stage… I had a smile on my face the whole time. When I got to the age when I couldn’t sing the way I had, I stopped and began to teach, and it was just as exciting.” Now in its fifth year, her competition is an extension of this passion.

Alba’s devotion is infectious and the competition has always been a family affair. Daughter Shelley Townsend is her right-hand in all preparations, while husband Art, a retired graphic artist, works quietly behind the scenes to prepare the event’s visual elements. The three work together throughout the planning process and their collaboration morphs into a kind of synergistic frenzy during the semi-finals and finals. Over the years, this dynamic trinity has carefully learned what works and what doesn’t work, continuing to fine-tune the competition with one goal in mind: exposure for aspiring, dedicated singers. The event itself costs around $20,000 to put on each year, with funds provided by the Soma Foundation and a host of generous benefactors.

The event differs from other US competitions in several ways. First, candidates may not be on contract or in young artists programs with major opera houses. Alba explains. “We have to shave off those already-started careers and take the people that haven’t had a break yet.” Second, applicants are eligible regardless of age, whereas most US competitions have an age limit. Drawing on the European artistic perspective that “older is better,” Alba’s competition includes candidates ranging in age from late twenties through early forties. Finally, in contrast to more intimidating competitions elsewhere, Alba and company promote a friendly, collegial atmosphere without losing expectations of excellence and professionalism so crucial to success in the opera world.

Judging begins months before the public event, with Alba carefully reviewing all candidates, each of whom sends in a biography, a CD or DVD of a performance, and a list of four arias to perform. She determines which applicants move forward to the semi-finals, then has a panel of judges join her to decide who goes on to the finals. From there, the decision is completely in the hands of the other judges, selected by Alba from her extensive connections.

Letting go of the end result may not be the easiest thing for a grande dame like Alba. She confesses, “Of course I bite my fingernails if they don’t choose who I want, but I can’t say anything,” while daughter Townsend diplomatically notes, “She has very strong feelings about what’s going on.” With her usual grace and panache, Alba manages to turn over the decision-making to her carefully-selected judges. Competitors are assessed on vocal quality, technique, musicality, diction, as well as appearance, communication and audience appeal.

The 2010 panel includes Orival Bento-Gonçalves, a Brazilian bass and Ph.D. in vocal performance; conductor William Buhidar, a regular at the Eastman School of Music Summer Conducting Institute and numerous other US and European institutions; and soprano Mary Jane Johnson, whose career has included televised performances with Pavarotti, work with the acclaimed Santa Fe Opera are the recent founding of the Taos Opera Institute. The accompanists, also hand-picked by Alba, include Teruhiko Toda, Scott Holshouser of the Houston Symphony, and Dr. Karina Praxedes Barnett of Cornerstone United Methodist Church.

Informal and closed to the general public, the semi-finals are a kind of vocal marathon running from the late morning through the early evening. With twelve minutes each, competitors sing one aria from their repertoire, after which the judges request an additional selection. Over 70 arias later, judges depart for dinner and deliberations, narrowing down the list to about a dozen finalists.

The finals are a big show in the true operatic tradition. In formal dress, finalists perform before the judges and a live audience, usually upwards of 150 people. While judges decide on the winners, audience members have a share in the outcome by selecting “audience favorites.” Prizes are given during a final award ceremony: $3,500 for first place, $2,000 for second, $1,000 for third and two $500 audience-favorite awards.

Over the years, Alba's competition has drawn more and more singers from outside the Lone Star State. This year a record-breaking 86 candidates submitted their work, with only a handful of the 2010 semi-finalists from Houston or other Texas cities. Some come from as far as New York and California, while several are of foreign birth and studying in the US.

A testament to Alba’s efforts, past winners have gone on to enjoy success and recognition. Soprano Dalma Boronkai went on from winning first place in 2006 to performing lead roles in Opera in the Heights productions as well as at the New Opera Festival di Roma. Placing third in 2007, Korean baritone Yoon-Sang Lee currently performs with the Palm Beach Opera. The 2008 second place winner, local tenor Nathaniel Peake, is a 2009-10 Studio Artist with Houston Grand Opera, while last year’s first place winner soprano Jessica Julin was a recent National Grand Finalist of The Metropolitan Opera National Council and has an active schedule of performances. Finalists, including local soprano Alison Greene, continue to meet with success as well.

As the big weekend approaches, Alba is busy promoting the event, including an interview on Houston Public Radio’s The Front Row (88.7 FM) later this week. Given its gaining momentum and the achievements of past participants, the Fifth Annual Lois Alba Aria Competition promises to be an exciting event for opera lovers and an excellent introduction to the opera world for newcomers. Finals take place from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 2nd at Cullen Hall on the University of St. Thomas campus. General admission is $25 per person, $20 for seniors and $15 for students.

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