An Art Form at the Highest Level

Pasadena Vocal Competition shines light on future opera stars

By Summer Aguirre

Pasadena Vocal Competition is vowing to keep classical music alive by promoting the world’s next generation of opera singers through its annual concert.

The nonprofit is hosting the 2023 competition’s final-round concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 25, at San Marino Community Church. While promoting community interest in opera’s power and beauty, the competition supports aspiring classical singers as they begin their careers. 

“It’s really one of the most challenging classical music art forms to execute at a high standard, because there’s not just a symphony orchestra involved — there’s singers without microphones, costumes, singing from memory, props,” says Cathy Miller, the organization’s artistic director and pianist. “It’s such a multitasking art form at the highest level, and it’s so exciting. I would just love to see audiences there and (see them) enthusiastic about it.”

The annual competition showcases aspiring opera singers between the ages of 22 and 32 from all over the country, awarding the winners over $20,000 in cash prizes funded by the Pasadena Area Opera Trust.

This year saw a record 106 applicants, with 42 singers continuing to the finals.

Miller expressed excitement at their ability to host the competition’s final round in person this year, as it had been held remotely the past few years due to the pandemic.

In 2020, Pasadena Vocal Competition held competitions online with a live broadcast. Eighty-seven applicants paid the $50 application fee and submitted videos of their performances, with a dozen deserving singers receiving $25,000. The following few pandemic years’ competitions were held in similar formats.

“It was heartwarming in so many ways because a lot of these kids were making videos in their bathroom, kitchen or living room,” Miller says.

“Just to keep going and not be defeated by the lack of performance opportunities during the pandemic.

“It was so hard for all of these opera singers to not be able to do their craft (in person) during the pandemic, and it’s wonderful that audiences can come back as well,” she adds.

Pasadena Vocal Competition, according to Miller, is not simply a vocal competition giving money to singers. Its mission is to “see the whole chain of opera survive in the United States” and “get people excited about opera.”

“We’re not Europe, where there’s a lot of famous, iconic opera houses that have been around for 500 years. Some of the world’s greatest opera houses are right here in the U.S., but compared to the population, opera is really undersupported in every way,” Miller says.

“We support community interest in opera; we want more Americans to be excited about opera. If we don’t financially support the singers, young people aren’t going to want to be opera singers. And by offering a free event to the public, we’re doing that to get community interest in opera to see the survival of the art form.”

While breathing life into U.S. opera, Pasadena Vocal Competition is an opportunity for the next generation of the world’s top opera singers to perform and receive funding to further their careers.

By awarding these young singers funding, Miller hopes that they can get the best coaching education and voice lessons so they can afford to take auditions in New York, Europe and other destinations across the globe.

She explains that it is especially a struggle for young female opera singers between the ages of 25 and 30 to launch careers in the art, as many operatic voices reach peak maturity after age 30.

After completing their master’s degree, it is necessary for them to get into young artists’ programs to advance their careers, so having an undeveloped voice makes it more difficult.

“There’s a lot of time where they’re really not making a lot of money, and so we need to have the competition to just give them financial and moral support,” Miller says.

Pasadena Vocal Competition’s winners have graced international stages, including the Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

2021 winner Blake Denson, a baritone, graduated from the Houston Grand Opera Young Artist Vocal Academy and received an assessed contract with Hamburg State Opera in Germany. 

Miller also notes the 2022 first-prize recipient, soprano Magdalena Kuzma, went on to win at least five more competitions following her victory at PVC. She was then accepted into the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at The Metropolitan Opera.

The competition was established in 2018 by Robert Barbera, the founder and chairman, as the Mentoris Vocal Competition.

In 2020, it became a nonprofit organization and was renamed to the Pasadena Vocal Competition. It is now primarily run by Miller, who is supported by a five-member board, most of whom are former opera singers and instructors, and an organizing staff.

The competition is supported by the Barbera Foundation and the Pasadena Area Opera Trust, the latter of which was created by patrons of the Pasadena Opera Guild from 1967 to 2018.

Pasadena Vocal Competition also has a group of donors who give anywhere between $100 and $2,000.

Miller stresses their need for any financial support from the community to keep the organization going. They even greatly appreciate those who attend the final round concert to cheer on the contestants.

“Without those generous folks, we couldn’t do this,” she says.

Pasadena Vocal Competition

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, February 25

WHERE: San Marino Community Church, 1750 Virginia Road, San Marino

COST: Free admission