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Placido Domingo's Quebec mission

The legendary Spanish tenor is bringing his prestigious opera competition to Canada

PAUL WELLS September 1 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Placido Domingo's Quebec mission

The legendary Spanish tenor is bringing his prestigious opera competition to Canada

PAUL WELLS September 1 2008

Placido Domingo's Quebec mission

music

The legendary Spanish tenor is bringing his prestigious opera competition to Canada

PAUL WELLS

No, Paul McCartney and Céline Dion aren’t the only vocalists performing in Quebec City to celebrate its 400th anniversary. The next bunch won’t even need microphones to make themselves heard.

From Sept. 19-24, the Grand Théâtre de Québec will play host to one of the world’s most prestigious opera competitions: Operaba, the brainchild and pet project of the legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.

Every year since 1994, Operaba has brought together brilliant young singers in all voice ranges from around the world—usually, it must be said, in capitals with more of a reputation as global opera hot spots: Paris, Madrid, Los Angeles. If it’s touching down in Quebec City this year, it’s thanks to the hullabaloo surrounding the city’s 400th anniversary, with the robust audiences and promotional budgets that go along with such a top-tier tourist event. The hustle and ambition of Grégoire Legendre, the Opéra de Québec’s general director, helped too. So did the fact that Quebec City’s big Grand Théâtre concert hall has been supplemented with the arrival of the Palais Montcalm, a Depressionera art deco palace of no particular note that reopened last year, after a four-year, $23-million renovation, as one of Canada’s most spectacular smaller concert halls.

As for Operaba, what makes it so important to the opera world isn’t the prizes, though they are nothing to sneeze at: a $175,000 pot, including $30,000 each for the winning male and female singers. What makes Operaba stand out is its focus on finding singers with star potential and making sure, long after the competition ends, that they achieve that potential.

Domingo hovers over the festival like a

benevolent angel, helping each of the 40 competitors select and rehearse their repertoire, conducting the orchestra for the final round, and then using his unparalleled connections for years afterwards to get the singers gigs with the world’s great opera companies. The talent scouting begins well before the winners are announced: Domingo directs the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, and the jury is composed of directors from first-tier opera houses, including Monte Carlo, Vienna, London’s Covent Garden, Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Past Operaba winners who’ve gone on to major careers include Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, one of the most in-demand young opera stars in the world today; Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott; and Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who won in Los Angeles in 2000.

In Quebec City, Stephen Hegedus will try to become Operaba’s second Canadian winner. The 29-year-old bass-baritone from Toronto, now living in Montreal, will be one of only two Canadian competitors at this year’s Quebec City edition. (Soprano Joyce El-Khoury from Ottawa is the other.) Hegedus says he enjoys a home-court advantage— he sang a concert at the Palais Montcalm with the Violons du Roy chamber orchestra last

Christmas—but that, given the level of competition, it probably won’t give him much of an edge. This isn’t reality television, where a mobile-phone salesman and part-time singer like Paul Potts could sweep to victory. The Operaba competitors are already well-begun in formidable careers. Hegedus is scheduled to make his Carnegie Hall debut in the new year in Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Since his preliminary audition CD won him a shot at Operaba stardom, Hegedus has been working on his competition repertoire; four very different arias, by Handel, Mozart, Massenet, and the American composer Carlisle Floyd. “They all have to pack a punch,” Hegedus said. “It’s hard to tell in any competition what the jury’s looking for.”

It may be surprising that an international opera competition would touch down in a relatively quiet burg like Quebec City, but Hegedus said it’s not quite so surprising that Canada in general would get such a nod. “Canadians generally have a very good reputation in terms of the quality of singing,” he said, “very comparable to the rest of the world.” Singers like Ben Heppner, Karina Gauvin and Gerald Finley are perhaps better-known outside Canada than they are at home.

If Operaba won’t quite transform Quebec City into an international opera hot spot, it will succeed, for a week, in making the city a hot spot for talent-scouting and deal-making. And singing. M