The standard was high this year and the judges took their time to decide. “They made it very difficult. It was very close,” said Fiona Janes, Artistic Director of the Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Foundation and one of the judges when they finally emerged with the results.

In the end, Benson Wilson, a 27-year old baritone born in New Zealand of Samoan descent, won the Bel Canto Award worth $30,000, while the Elizabeth Connell Prize went to French soprano Claire de Monteil.

Benson Wilson, Maestro Richard Bonynge and Claire de Monteil. Photograph © Zohar Izenberg

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Bel Canto Award, which is open to Australian and New Zealand singers aged 20 to 30 years old. The Final, with prizes totalling $95,000, was held at Verbrugghen HallSydney Conservatorium of Music on Saturday September 1, with Richard Bonynge, Bernadette Cullen, Fiona Janes, Anne-Maree McDonald and Patricia Price as judges.

Australian soprano Livia Brash took out the second prize, while Tongan New Zealander Filipe Manu came third. The other finalists were soprano Olivia Canwell, baritone Andrew Williams and soprano Jessie Wilson.

The finalists were judged on two arias sung at the Final, as well as two arias performed at the Preliminary Final, held at Shore Grammar School on August 30. They were accompanied at the piano by David Harper. Benson Wilson’s two Final arias were Hai gia vinta la causa from Mozart’s La nozze di Figaro, and Rodrigo’s Death Scene from Verdi’s Don Carlos.

Wilson is currently studying opera at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he will soon play Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Demetrius in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2017, he performed with the London Symphony Orchestra in Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre as the fallen soldier Schabernack. He has participated in the Georg Solti Accademia where he worked with bel canto specialists including Maestro Richard Bonynge. He has also been selected as a Samling Artist for 2017/2018.

Among the full list of Bel Canto Award prizes the Richard Bonynge Award worth $15,000 went to Livia Brash; the Tait Memorial Trust Prize allowing a chance to perform in a TMT concert in London was shared by Benson Wilson and Filipe Manu; the Universal Music Prize of CDs was shared by Olivia Cranwell, Manu and Andrew Williams; the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival Summer School, offering a three-week bel canto course, went to Jessie Wilson; the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Prize, which features a professional performance was awarded to Livia Brash; the Georg Solti Accademia Di Bel Canto Summer School, which comprises a three-week course in Tuscany, went to Brash; the Best Mozart or Handel Aria worth $5,000 went to Manu; the Kinnon Award worth $3,000 was presented to Cranwell; the JSRB Foundation Award worth $4000 went to Williams; the Decca Award worth $5,000 went to Manu; and the Sanderson Award worth $5000 went to Jessie Wilson. Benson Wilson also took home the Audience Choice.

The Elizabeth Connell Prize is an international singing competition for dramatic sopranos aged 25 to 34, with total prizes worth $52,000. The main prize worth $30,000 and an audition at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden went to French soprano Claire de Monteil whose Final arias were Es gibt ein Reich from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and Toi qui sus le néant from Verdi’s Don Carlos. Second prize went to American soprano Maria Natale, and third prize to German soprano Arminia Friebe. The two other finalists were Maari Ernits from Estonia and Elizabeth Lewis from Australia. The Audience Choice went to Maria Natale.

Born in Paris, de Monteil began singing at age eight in the children’s chorus of the Paris Opera. At age 15, she began studying voice with Herminé Yerissian and continued at La Haute Ecole de Musique of Geneva in Switzerland, where she earned a Master of Arts in 2016. She is currently a third year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, US, and has sung on stages in France, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Turkey, Latvia and Australia.

Jonathan Alley who won the Sydney Song Prize with his accompanist Thomas Johnson (left) and Maestro Richard Bonynge. Photograph supplied

The Sydney Song Prize worth $2000 was awarded this year to baritone Jonathan Alley, who was accompanied by Thomas Johnson. Second prize went to Jae Kwon Kim, and third prize to Georgia Hall. Finalists prizes were awarded to Pamela Andrews and Louise Keast. The judges for the Sydney Song Prize were Richard Bonynge, Deborah Humble and Vincent Colagiuri.