Young Vocalists: Worth a Special Trip

By Heidi Waleson

There's nothing quite like the sensation of hearing an exciting young singer for the first time, and then hearing that person grow and develop. American opera stages are bursting with talent, and those who stand out, like the dozen profiled here, are truly individual—singers with distinctive voices and compelling stage presences. Voices take time to develop, so some of these artists are just hitting their stride in their mid 30s. But every one of them is worth a special trip.

Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
It would seem that Stephanie Blythe, 35, can do anything. Such voices—huge, rich, and flexible—don't appear that often, and Blythe knows exactly how to use hers for maximum impact. Whether she's doing a big dramatic role like Fricka in Seattle or Cornelia (Giulio Cesare) at the Met, singing a glorious Carmen (Seattle), or showing off her impeccable comic timing and bel canto skills in Italiana at Santa Fe, Blythe commands attention. A native of upstate New York and a graduate of the Met's young artist program, Blythe is having a big Handel year: She's part of the Met's star-studded new Rodelinda and takes on the title role of Giulio Cesare in Colorado.

Joyce Di Donato, mezzo-soprano
The early-music folks have discovered Kansas City mezzo Joyce Di Donato, 35: She spent July 2004 singing a leading role in Handel's Hercules with William Christie and Les Art Florissants in Aix-en-Provence (which goes on to Paris in December), and her Handel duets with soprano Patrizia Ciofi on the new Virgin disc "Amor e gelosia" are a feast of expressive fire. Di Donato built her reputation in bel canto, especially in Barber and Cenerentola, but her New York debut in 2002 came from another corner of the repertoire: She was a playful yet commanding Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.

Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano
Alaska-born Vivica Genaux, 35, skipped the apprentice track and is already in the midst of a major career, including recordings. This vivacious mezzo, with smoky low notes and splendid agility, specializes in Baroque and Rossini operas. Rosina in Barber is her mainstream calling card (when I first heard her in it, in Washington in 1996, she lit up the stage), but she has added many leading roles in more exotic pieces by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, and others, often with conductor René Jacobs. Given her repertoire, Genaux works primarily in Europe these days, but she appears occasionally in American houses, including Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

Christine Goerke, soprano
In 1997 at Glimmerglass, Christine Goerke, now 35, wowed her audience in the difficult title role of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride while drenched in water and sharing the stage with two half-naked men. This dramatic soprano from Long Island, a graduate of the Met's young artist program, has since confirmed her promise with a high-spirited and high-flying Armida in Rinaldo at New York City Opera and a radiant Madame Lidoine in Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. This season, she swings from comedy (Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at Opera Company of Philadelphia) to high tragedy (Chrysothemis in Tokyo).

Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor
In 1997, Anthony Dean Griffey gave a mesmerizing performance as the mentally retarded Lennie in Of Mice and Men at Glimmerglass, a role he has since repeated with five other opera companies. His beautifully colored lyric tenor and remarkable ability to inhabit characters have also made him a fascinating Peter Grimes (he began with one performance as a cover at the Met in 1998 and will sing the role at Santa Fe in 2005). Griffey, 37, who comes from North Carolina, was going to be a music minister (a divinity school graduate who handles all musical matters at a church) until a teacher persuaded him to audition for Eastman. He graduated from the Met's young artist program and specializes in American and British operas, filling in his schedule with concert and orchestral work.

Nathan Gunn, baritone
For a while, baritone Nathan Gunn, 33, seemed to be specializing in bare torso roles like Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride at Glimmerglass, Billy Budd in Chicago, and most recently, Zurga in The Pearl Fishers in Philadelphia. But Gunn is much more than just a set of handsome pecs. A graduate of the University of Illinois and veteran of the Met's young artist program, Gunn's Chicago Billy in 2001 was exquisitely poignant, joining lyrical singing and theatrical intensity. Gunn sings Billy in San Francisco and Munich this season; in 2005, he has the lead in the Met's latest commission, An American Tragedy by Tobias Picker.

Michael Maniaci, male soprano
One benefit of the Baroque opera revival is the opportunity to hear male soprano Michael Maniaci, one of the most exciting young high-register male singers around. Maniaci, 28, who grew up in Pittsburgh and recently finished his studies at Juilliard's American Opera Center, was a winner in the 2003 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He made a big impression at Glimmerglass in the true lover's role in both Handel's Orlando (2003) and Imeneo (2004), with pure high notes, seamless legato, and a profound connection to the heart of the character.

Lyubov Petrova, soprano
Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova, 29, is clearly on the fast track. A graduate of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow with a few years at that city's Novaya Opera under her belt, she was a "special participant" in the Metropolitan Opera's young artist program in April 2001 when she stepped in to replace Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. She later became an official member of the program, as well as an audience favorite at the Spoleto Festival USA where she sang the title role of Lakmé in 2003 and a sparkly, dancing Zerbinetta with high-flying coloratura in 2004. Zerbinetta remains a calling card: She sings it in Los Angeles and Paris this season.

Matthew Polenzani, tenor
Sweet-voiced lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani has been stealing the show in small roles like David in Meistersinger and Iopas in Les Troyens at the Met for several years. He even stood out as an especially eloquent Chevalier in the femaledominated Dialogues of the Carmelites. But Polenzani, 36, who comes from Chicago, studied at Yale, and was in the Lyric Opera of Chicago young artist program, has started to move into the spotlight. He received the 2004 Richard Tucker Award, has Rossini and Donizetti leads in the U.S. and Europe, and this season sings Tamino in a new Magic Flute at the Met.

Emily Pulley, soprano
There are many lyric sopranos, but Texan Emily Pulley, 37, has leading-lady charisma that sets her apart. Now, after several years of paying her dues as a cover singer at the Met, she is finally getting the spotlight. At Glimmerglass in 2004, she shone as Minnie, the pistol-packing, soft-hearted heroine of La Fanciulla del West, capturing the crowd with burnished sound and straightforward, unaffected acting. She has also been a witty, outgoing Valencienne in The Merry Widow at the Met (complete with cartwheel) and a vengeful fury with stratospheric coloratura as Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra at New York City Opera. Next up: a starring role in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Lysistrata in Houston.

Celena Shafer, soprano
When Celena Shafer sang the role of the sorceress Aithra in a New York concert performance of Strauss's Die Aegyptische Helena in 2002, her high, silvery soprano made an exciting foil to Deborah Voigt in the title role. Shafer, 29, a graduate of the University of Utah and Santa Fe Opera apprentice program, is taking her coloratura skills on the road with roles like Marie in La Fille du Régiment, Gilda in Rigoletto, and Tytania in Midsummer Night's Dream, the latter this season in her home state at the Utah Symphony and Opera.

Rolando Villazon, tenor
Rolando Villazon's New York City Opera debut as a rapturous Rodolfo in La Bohème in 2001 sounded like the beginning of a major career. Born and trained in Mexico (he taught history part-time to pay his way through conservatory), this 32-year old tenor has a warm, ringing voice, unforced high notes, and an appealing stage presence. Villazon got started in the Pittsburgh and San Francisco young artist programs just a few years ago, but most of his recent work has been in Europe. He sings Roméo in Los Angeles this winter, and can also be heard on a solo disc of Italian arias from Virgin Classics.

Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for
The Wall Street Journal.




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