Aussie soprano, aged 25, scores at Plácido Domingo’s Covent Garden competition for budding opera talent.

A bare stage, an orchestra of 80, a conductor of enormous operatic standing and an expectant and knowledgeable audience of some 2,500 strong would be a daunting prospect for anyone.  But for 11 finalists, this was what they had to face on Sunday evening to stake their claim to one of the prizes on offer in this years’ Operalia competition at London’s Royal Opera House. You would expect that level of examination to sort the wheat from the chaff and so it did. The first three singers came and went with hardly a ripple, until Queensland-born soprano Kiandra Howarth arrived and filled the stage with her performance of Juliette’s aria Amour, ranime mon courage from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

“My purpose in Operalia is to help identify not only the best voices of today, but also to discover those singers whose personalities, characters and powers of interpretation show that they have the potential to become complete artists,” says conductor and inspiration behind the competition, Plácido Domingo. It was that ability to communicate beyond the orchestra that made the difference for Howarth and won her the Culturarte prize of US $10,000.

Howarth, who hit the headlines last December when she stepped into the lead role of Adina in the Royal Opera House’s production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, was of course delighted. “To have just finished my Young Artists Programme here and won this prize all in the same week is just fantastic,” she said afterwards. “But what I have got most from this experience has been the opportunity to work with such wonderful and inspiring people.”

There are two winners of the opera competition, one male and one female and these were respectively Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea, 25 and Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, 28. It might be an over-simplification to suggest amid such exalted company the old music competition adage: “it’s the song that counts”, but Hotea delivered the nine top Cs required of Tonio’s aria Ah, mes amis from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment with such precision that it would hard for him not to have been given a prize. As for Davidsen, the only singer to tackle an aria with any real weight – in this case Dich, teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhäuser – had the audience cheering despite a somewhat static performance.

Not that I would want to take anything away from any of these performers – they were uniformly excellent and at this level of competition there are fine lines separating the very best. But for me, the stand-out performance of the evening came from Hye Sang Park, a South Korean soprano who sang Il dolce suono from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with grace, ease, tone and precision, all at the same time. She went on to win the Zarzuela prize and came second in the overall female competition netting her some US $30,000 for the week’s work, so she should be well satisfied.

Special mention should also be made of 27-year-old tenor Darren Pene Pati, a Somoan born Aucklander and one third of popular vocal trio Sol3 Mio. He came second in the male competition and also won the male Audience prize. He certainly got my vote. No top Cs, but he delivered Tombe degli avi miei from Lucia di Lammermoor with the power and ease reminiscent of a young Luciano Pavarotti.

The full list of prizes and winners:

First Prizes of US $30,000 – Ioan Hotea, Romania/Lise Davidsen, Norway

Second Prizes of US $20,000 – Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Hye Sang Park, South Korea

Third Prizes of US $10,000 – Edward Parks, USA/Noluvuyiso Mpofu, South Africa

Birgit Nilsson Prize of US $15,000 – Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Pepita Embil Domingo Prize of Zarzuela of US $10,000 – Hye Sang Park, South Korea

The Don Plácido Domingo, Sr., Prize of Zarzuela of US $10,000 – Ioan Hotea, Romania

Audience Prizes, Rolex Wristwatch – Darren Pene Pati, New Zealand/Lise Davidsen, Norway

The Culturarte Prize of US $ 10,000 – Kiandra Howarth, Australia

Founded in 1993 with the aim of discovering promising young opera singers, Operalia is hosted by a different city every year and surprisingly this was its first year at the Royal Opera House, London. The preliminary rounds took place over the preceding three days with contestants performing in front of an international jury including representation from the opera houses of Chicago and New York, Bayreuth, Bordeaux, London, Madrid, Monte Carlo, Paris, Verona and Santiago. Plácido Domingo himself does not vote, but conducted the final and is present throughout the competition to offer guidance on artistic and career development for each participant. An excellent opportunity for young opera singers, long may it continue.