Until five months ago, Emma Johnson heard precious little about the Rose Bowl Trophy, which the Winnipeg Music Festival has been awarding for its top vocal performance since 1924.
But the 23-year-old Regina-born singer can add her name to its legacy of notable winners after being given the nod Saturday night.
"It’s surreal," Johnson says of her unexpected win during her first time competing at the festival.
She’s in the final stretch of completing a pre-master’s program in vocal performance this spring, and will embark on graduate studies with acclaimed opera singer/coach Monica Huisman next September at the University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music.
"I had heard lots of hype about the Rose Bowl, but I didn’t understand what an event it was. I was also surprised because I think so highly of my colleagues who competed tonight. I’m very humbled," Johnson says.
After finishing her undergraduate music degree at the University of Toronto in April 2016, Johnson first crossed paths with Huisman at the Regina Music Festival. Huisman invited the aspiring singer to come to Winnipeg to study with her, a proposition she leapt at after discovering they shared a simpatico approach to music-making.
"I had my first lesson with Monica last June, and it was like fireworks," Johnson recounts, who won two of her six festival classes last week: German lieder and Italian art song. "We just clicked, and I’m so grateful to be her student. It’s also wonderful having a teacher so involved with the community in Canada as well as Winnipeg, and being able to see your mentor in action."
Her two selections, accompanied by pianist Lisa Rumpel, who played for seven out of nine singers during Saturday’s high-stakes competition, showcased Johnson’s compelling soprano and ability to weave a spell of storytelling. Her captivating performance of the Schubert lied, Gretchen am Spinnrade, as well as Verdi’s gypsy-flavoured La Zingara caught the eye — and ear — of adjudicator Kimberly Barber.
"Emma is a very, very refined artist, and has a special quality to her voice that is like old school, or golden-age singing," Barber, a Canadian mezzo-soprano and Wilfrid Laurier University music professor explains of her difficult choice. "She commanded my attention from the second she walked onstage with her poise, stature and charisma, and pulled us all into her world.
"There’s also a certain ‘chill factor,’ where you really get goose-bumps and feel completely engaged with their performance — and Emma had that in spades."
Those sentiments are echoed by Canadian opera director, Winnipeg’s Rob Herriot who adjudicated two vocal classes of his own during the 22-day festival that concluded Sunday afternoon with its gala concert.
"Our winner had that special something that had us riveted. Emma’s performance was the one — dead on," he says. "But tonight also showed what great teachers we have in this city as evidenced by the performances we’re getting onstage at the Rose Bowl."
Sopranos Emily Diehl-Reader and Jayne Hammond were named runners-up out of a field of nine competitors. Johnson also earned a WMF scholarship, the Herbert and Audrey Belyea Trophy, as well as an invitation to perform with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Made in Manitoba showcase being held at the Centennial Concert Hall on June 28 as well as an appearance with Virtuosi Concerts’ young artists program.
Johnson first began voice lessons when she was seven, encouraged by her highly supportive lawyer parents. At first, the singer seemed headed down an entirely different career path.
"I thought at first that I’d take a safe path and do business. But then my dad told me, if you never try (music), you’ll always wonder what would have happened. I’ve been so fortunate in that respect," Johnson says. "I also completely credit my mom because I’ve done everything from singing lessons to gymnastics and she supported everything.
"I have always loved to sing, and love classical music," she says. "What I think is so special about the voice is that it’s your instrument — literally. It’s you. I’m also a very open person, and I like sharing that vulnerable part of myself with people."
The elegant musician already has her sights firmly set on her future goals. She’s aiming to complete her Master of Music degree two years from now, and then plans to apply for an array of young-artists training programs, either in Canada, the United States, or Europe that promise to open more doors for her.
She also dreams of someday competing at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, that could potentially springboard her onto the venerable opera company’s stage in the footsteps of her adored idols, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko or American soprano Renée Fleming, whom she met once following her performance at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company.
"I feel so privileged to get to do what I truly love, and be supported in that," Johnson says of her singing career, thus far.
"But what really inspires me is seeing the joy and passion in your fellow colleagues, as well as other artists who are at such a high professional level. This community is so full of people who are encouraging — it’s like a family."
"I’m Prairie-born and was raised in Regina. I went to Toronto for four years, and ended up in the middle," she says, her laugh like music. "Tonight really just felt like a big celebration."