Soprano Zoe Drummond has won the prestigious Marianne Mathy Scholarship at this year’s IFAC Handa Australian Singing Competition, which comes with a cash prize of $30,000 to assist with a program of study or singing activity. The 25-year-old Victorian joins a prestigious list of winners that includes international stars the likes of Stuart Skelton and Jessica Pratt.

Zoe Drummond. Photo © Kann Huang

At the finals concert on Saturday evening, Drummond impressed judges with a technically refined reading of the aria Nel grave tormento from Mozart’s early opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. She followed it up with Nanetta’s aria from Verdi’s final work, Falstaff, sung with commendable control and shimmering tone. All finalists were accompanied by the opera Australian Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Milton.

The Mathy Scholarship, as it is commonly called, is an enviable leg up in the difficult career path of an opera singer. The Scholarship comes with an opportunity to audition for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s professional-artist development program, a portrait painting of the winner, a taped interview conducted by historian Diana Ritch, and a statuette created by Drago Marin Cherina. Drummond was also awarded the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Prize, which will see her perform with the orchestra.

Accepting her awards, Drummond said, “it means so much to me and it will really, really help towards a very challenging but incredible career I hope. Thank you to all these amazing finalists up here. You’re all incredible and I feel very privileged to be here onstage with you all. And this orchestra! I think it’s a career highlight to be able to perform with such amazing musicians. I’d like to thank my teachers, past and present, and my family and beautiful support network that I’ve got, so thank you all so much.”

Tristan Entwistle, Cleo Lee-McGowan, Zoe Drummond, Katherine McIndoe and Pasquale Orchard. Photo © Kann Huang

A regular on the competition circuit, Drummond has a string of honours to her name. She won the Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship in 2016 and was a Melba Opera Trust Scholar for three consecutive years. In Australia, she has performed with Victorian Opera and Opera Australia, in its productions of The Eighth Wonder and Two Weddings, One Bride. She is currently completing an Artist Masters of Opera Performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London.

After Drummond, it was Sydney baritone Tristan Entwistle who collected the lion’s share of the awards up for grabs. His two selections – Vaughan Williams’ The Vagabond and Hai già vinta la causa from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a favourite with baritones in competitions – demonstrated his compelling stage presence and gift for characterisation. He was awarded the Goethe Institut Prize, a scholarship to attend a 10-week intensive course at the German-language school; The Song Company Prize, a place at a SONGCO LAB summer school to rehearse, workshop and perform alongside its vocal ensemble; the Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song, a scholarship to attend and participate in the next Festival; and the Saarbrücken Opera House Prize, a three-week program held at the State Opera House in Saarland.

Victorian soprano Cleo Lee-McGowan matched his substantial haul with four awards of her own – she won the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Prize, which will see her perform with them in 2019; the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Award, another professional engagement opportunity; the Guildhall School of Music & Drama Award, which provides fees for one year’s study at the Guildhall and comes with the $3,750 Pasqualina Lipari Prize; and the MOST Audience Prize, voted on by the audience on the evening and coming with a $500 cash grant. She impressed with her two arias, a dreamily sung Deh vieni, non tardar from Mozart’s Figaro and a sparkling, technically secure Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

After Drummond, perhaps the most complete artist on display was New Zealand soprano Katherine McIndoe. With a full, rich voice and dramatic sensitivity, she made an impression in two cleverly chosen selections – Debussy’s L’air de Lia and Strauss’s Cäcilie. She was awarded the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute Montreal Scholarship, which will see her attend its Summer Program and comes with an additional $3,750 Pasqualina Lipari Prize; the Nelly Apt Scholarship, valued up to $7000 and offers a place at the Israeli Opera Young Artist Program at the Meitar Opera Studio, Tel Aviv; and the Merenda Legacy Prize, a cash grant of up to $8,000 to study the Italian language in Italy.

The youngest finalist at just 21, fellow New Zealander Pasquale Orchard also showed promise. She offered an animated Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen from Weber’s Der Freischütz and a deeply felt Kennst du das land from Wolf’s Mignon. The soprano was awarded the David Harper Award, ten lessons with the respected vocal coach and accompanist, and the Royal Northern College of Music Award, which offers fees for one year’s study and comes with the $2,500 Haas Award to assist with travel expenses.

Each of the five finalists were also awarded the Opera Australia Prize, which gives recipients the opportunity to attend rehearsals in Melbourne or Sydney.

The adjudicators were National Adjudicator Linnhe Robertson, Michael Halliwell, Anthony Hunt, Noëmi Nadelmann and Raff Wilson.