FREDONIA - Two SUNY Fredonia students earned high praise at the Buffalo/Toronto District division of the Metropolitan Opera's National Council auditions, winning Encouragement Awards, and a third gained praise from the Buffalo News music critic, on Jan. 4 at Nichols School's Flickinger Performing Arts Center in Buffalo.
The prestigious award, which recognizes singers under the age of 25 who are already performing at a very high professional level, was given to soprano Danielle Beckvermit, a senior from Kingston, and baritone Makoto Winkler, a December 2013 graduate from Seaford. Recipients also received a $500 cash award. Encouragement Awards, which enhance a student's entry into major graduate programs and conservatories, were presented to just four of 56 singers.
Julie Newell, distinguished teaching professor, who is also the Hillman Opera producer at Fredonia and Winkler's mentor, said she wasn't surprised both students earned the high distinction, "because I know how well they sing."
Beckvermit won the School of Music's Concerto Competition, and Winkler was featured in a starring role in, "La Cenerentola," last fall's Hillman Opera production.
"They were competing against much older singers, many of whom are already working for the Toronto Opera Company, so for a couple of 21-year-olds to stand out as they did as the new generation, or the new kids, is great," Newell said.
"There are many years of hard work ahead for them, so it helps to have a significant boost of confidence along the way."
SUNY Fredonia students Justin Staebell ('09) and Victoria Vargas ('08) who studied under Dr. Gerald Gray, received the award in the past.
Beckvermit, who hoped to do her best and gain positive feedback from the judges, believed receiving an Encouragement Award was probably a long shot. She was the third singer to perform that morning, so she spent the rest of the day listening to all the other singers, and "was completely blown away. The level of singing and performance was absolutely astounding and most of the singers were much older than me and Makoto," she said.
"After hearing the amazing performances all day and knowing I was on the young side I was certainly not expecting an Encouragement Award. They called the first two winners, then me. I was completely shocked and then they called Makoto's name. What an amazing moment."
Beckvermit said meeting the judges afterward to gain feedback about performance and repertoire choices was the most important reason to enter the auditions. "After speaking with the judges they reassured me that I am on the right path and have a bright future in opera," she said.
"Fredonia is such a loving and nurturing environment and my teacher, Dr. (Patricia) Corron, has always been so supportive and encouraging. Without that I would have never even thought about auditioning for the Met. I plan on auditioning again when I'm a bit older and more experienced after completing graduate school."
Winkler overcame his initial insecurities about registering for the competition - wondering if he was ready to compete at such a highly revered event - and drew upon encouragement from Newell.
"When I actually sang, I wasn't very nervous. I always get butterflies before a performance, but that day I was under the mindset that I would present the best work I could prepare and only hope for the best."
For Winkler, the most valuable part of the auditions was receiving feedback that was "brutally honest" from the judges. "Essentially they told me what I needed to do work on and warned me about some of my singing habits that would hold me back, but on the flip side they said they look forward to listening to me in the future," he said.
"It's nice to get an outside opinion because it brings focus to the work that you do," Winkler said. "One of the things that make Fredonia such a special place is that everyone will always support you if you put yourself out there. I knew that even if I walked away empty handed from the competition I would still have a whole network of friends and teachers that would have been just as proud of me for just trying," he said.
"It's very important to have a support group like that since as a performer we are always bound to eventually fall short of our expectations but it's the people who care about you that keep you going."
Also part of the SUNY Fredonia's Met contingent were adjunct faculty member James Wright ('09, '12), Patricia (Carpenter) Vinti ('08, '12), and Amanda Conte ('12), a master's degree candidate and voice graduate assistant. The singers - all between the ages of 20 and 30 and most with master's degrees - have operatic experience and aspire for the opportunity to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. Auditions are held every year throughout the United States.
Only three singers were chosen to advance to the Great Lakes Regional finals.
Wright, also an adjunct at Canisius College, impressed Buffalo News music critic Mary Kunz Goldman, who wrote, "Though ultimately he was not chosen, Jim clearly impressed the judges with his aria from 'Faust,' because they called him back to sing an aria from Mozart's 'Cosi fan Tute'."
The bar for a student to receive a faculty recommendation for the Met audition is extremely high. "They need to be singing at what we consider to be the top 1 percent of our student body.
"They need to be stars of our program and have already proven themselves within the program," Newell said.
Students also must prove they're up to the task to prepare for the audition, which includes learning five different arias, which Newell said is "an intellectual challenge in itself."
Additionally, students must have demonstrated that they are ready to take the next step toward enrolling at a major graduate school or conservatory or pursuing professional work.
A composite of many skills - vocal ability, theatrical awareness, literary insight and an acting skill - opera is one of several performance and collaborative experiences that undergraduate students explore at the Fredonia School of Music. Some develop a passion for opera and may go on to further study.
"The Fredonia students at the Met auditions are still young, and some may go on for further study in preparation for their careers. For them to be recognized as they were is a compliment to their talent and hard work," said Karl Boelter, School of Music director. That Fredonia students were among the youngest singers also speaks well for the School of Music and its faculty, he added.