Sing It from the Heart

Young opera talents head to town for competition

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Opera singers ages 21 to 32 will showcase their talents in front of an invitation-only audience on February 13 during the Pasadena Vocal Competition, a nonprofit supported by the Pasadena Area Opera Trust.

Established in 2016, the competition gives opportunities for young singers to be supported financially in their artistic endeavors. With the backing of the trust, selected singers will be awarded about $40,000 in cash.

Pasadena Vocal Competition winners have gone on to perform with the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe and the Metropolitan operas, according to Catherine Miller, the competition’s artistic director.

“This year, we have more than 60 (competitors),” she says. “They travel here and take a live audition. It’s really a national competition. We have young talent from all over the country — East Coast, West Coast and everywhere in between.”

The February 13 final round was scheduled as a concert in front of a mask-wearing audience, but, according to Miller, that was changed to invitation only because of the pandemic. 

“We encourage all interested audience members to check out our website for details and updates,” Miller says. 

The winners will be announced at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 20, at
pasadenavocalcompetition.org, via a broadcast. 

The 2022 iteration marks the competition’s fifth year under the moniker Pasadena Vocal Competition, and its second as a nonprofit.

Entrants must submit four selections — three arias, one of each in English, Italian and a foreign language other than Italian, and a Broadway-style song. 

The challenges of music

Miller is a talent in her own right, who understands the challenges and thrills of a music career. 

“I’m an operatic coach and pianist,” she says. “I coach these singers on their roles. I help with pronunciation. I teach them notes, pitches, musicality and interpretation. I’m not really a voice teacher.

“I work on everything technically.”

A native Californian, Miller earned degrees from USC and The Juilliard School, and was also honored as a Fulbright Scholar at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary.

Miller is also a member of the music staff at San Diego Opera and a collaborative pianist and coach. 

She appeared with renowned soprano Angel Blue at the likes of The Kennedy Center, Wigmore Hall and The Ravinia Festival. 

Recent collaborations with tenor Nathan Granner and soprano Jamie Chamberlin have included Opera Orlando’s Opera on Park Concert Series, LA Made at the LA Public Library with Long Beach Opera, and the Community Concert Series in El Dorado. 

Most recently, Miller served as principal pianist for San Diego Opera’s drive-in production of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and will serve as principal pianist for their 2022 production of “Romeo et Juliette.”

For Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, she served as the principal pianist on productions of “Aida,” “Rigoletto” and “Turandot” as part of several Hollywood Bowl summer seasons. 

For the LA Phil, she was principal pianist on productions of “The Tempest” and Meredith Monk’s “Atlas,” both performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Storied history

From 1967 to 2018, Pasadena Opera Guild patrons funded the Pasadena Area Opera Trust. 

Miller calls the guild a “social group with a purpose,” as it provided financial support to young opera singers and an in-school opera performance for Pasadena elementary school students. The organization has not been able to perform in schools, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Pasadena Opera Guild was a social group of ladies that started in the late 1960s,” Miller says. “They started this trust and grew. Unfortunately, the guild folded four years ago. Membership was dwindling and it was difficult to find treasurer and president. However, they left behind this trust, which is quite substantial. Its purpose is to support young operatic talent.”

This year, Miller says, the competition — formerly known as Mentoris Vocal Competition — is giving away $40,000, which is a “record amount,” among a number of singers. The lowest amount is $3,000. 

“I’m a ‘spread-the-wealth’ type,” she says. “These opera singers really need encouragement because of the pandemic. They couldn’t sing live. For the eight finalists, four will get at least $3,000.”

The 2021 winner was baritone Blake Denson from the Houston Grand Opera Young Artists Vocal Academy. 

“The fact that he won first place last year really helped him,” Miller says. “He has contracts now for the next couple of years. 

“He only received $5,000 because we only gave away $25,000. Our funding depends on how much money the trust can give us. However, Blake has been hired in a number of national and international opera houses I think, partly, because of the fact he won first place with us.”

Taking second in 2021, Ashlyn Brown is a lyric-mezzo soprano making her young artist debut with the Sarasota Opera. In May, she leaves Florida for New Mexico, where she’ll take part in a similar program with the Santa Fe Opera.

“I was a part of the competition during a very unique time,” Brown says. 

“We were virtual and adapting to the pandemic in March 2021. It was really amazing to be part of something that was persevering through these wild times. Those of us with larger voices, we had to find a way to record ourselves in a way that properly (shared) our voices.”

Brown adds that the Pasadena Vocal Competition helped her do what she loves during a trying time. 

“Music in the time of COVID-19 is still tremendously challenging,” she says. 

“At any moment, we can get closed down again. Getting to do something to make music, to be doing our art through all of this, was incredible. Even though I was not a winner, it was an honor to get to be a part of something like this.”


2022 semifinalists

The Pasadena Vocal Competition has unveiled its 2022 semifinalists. The winners will be announced at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 20, at pasadenavocalcompetition.org, via a broadcast. 

Here are the semifinalists:

Zhengyi Bai – tenor

Joel Balzun – baritone

Anthony Ciaramitaro – tenor

Laura Decker – contralto

Veronique Filloux – soprano

Elizabeth Fischer – soprano

Alaysha Fox – soprano

Cara Gabrielson – soprano

Corey Hable – counter-tenor

Susannah Hardwick – soprano

Mariya Kaganskaya – mezzo

Eyvette Keong – soprano

Magdalena Kuzma – soprano

Anastasia Maliaras – soprano

Ashley Marie Robillard – soprano

Lisa Marie Rogali – mezzo

Julia Metzler – soprano

Shanley Michelle Horvitz – mezzo

Ashley Milanese – soprano

Hannah Moreno – soprano

Kara Morgan – mezzo

Krista Pape – soprano

Sunwoo Park – soprano

Meridian Prall – mezzo

Catherine Psarakis – soprano

Spencer Reichman – baritone

Jordan Rutter – counter-tenor

Moises Salazar – tenor

Taylor See – soprano

Erin Theodorakis – mezzo

Tiffany Townsend – soprano

Schyler Vargas – baritone

Wooyoung Yoon – tenor

Jason Zacher – bass-baritone

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