What’s Opera, Doc? A singing star is born


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I do not know what you guys got up to over the weekend, but I personally helped track down Winnipeg's next big opera star.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/10/2015 (2602 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I do not know what you guys got up to over the weekend, but I personally helped track down Winnipeg’s next big opera star.

You’re welcome. After watching the Blue Jays collapse in Game 2 of the ALCS Saturday, there I was sweating up a storm in front of a sold-out crowd at St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church as 12 budding opera stars battled head to head in a thrilling singing competition.

This came about because, for reasons I am not totally clear on, I was invited to be one of the three judges at the city’s first-ever Opera Idol competition, organized by Flipside Opera, a non-profit company poised to launch its first full season and dedicated to making this high-brow art form accessible to everyone.

Doug Speirs / Winnipeg Free Press Opera Idol judges Rob Herriot (left) and Tracy Dahl congratulate winner Aaron Hutton who wowed the competition with his rendition of the aria Lonely House.

Along with raising some cash, Opera Idol was a chance for this fledgling independent company to see what kind of young singing talent was lurking in Winnipeg’s woodwork.

“Flipside is about creating opportunities for emerging artists and highlighting works in an accessible way to grow the audience for opera,” said Judy Oatway, a soprano/music teacher who, along with Dawn Bruch, is the driving force behind the group.

“We wanted to find out what kind of talent there is in our city. We’re hoping somebody has the performance of their life, a shining moment on stage.”

As you can imagine, they assembled a sterling panel of judges, including internationally renowned Winnipeg soprano Tracy Dahl, who has performed on the most famous stages around the world over the last 33 years.

Also judging was Rob Herriot, one of the most prominent opera directors in Canada, despite the fact he has willingly cast me in two operas, including 2012’s Rigoletto, wherein I portrayed a naughty courtier who scoops up a beautiful woman, paddles her, then toddles around the stage before flinging her onto a pile of pillows and engaging in the operatic version of “canoodling”; and 2013’s Don Pasquale, wherein I was the equivalent of a house plant, a “sleeping cowboy” who spent the entire opera snoozing in a corner under a sombrero the size of a manhole cover.

According to the organizers, I was on the panel to represent people who know nothing about opera. From that perspective, I did an outstanding job. While my fellow judges made professional operatic remarks, I would offer up vital tidbits such as: “Wow that dress sure is red!” Or: “She has a very sparkly necklace.”

As for the competition, I will tell you from the heart it was far more inspiring and exciting than the Blue Jays game. As one of the contestants pointed out, even if you know nothing about opera, you still recognize some of the arias (opera talk for “song”). This is because most of us were exposed to some of these famous songs when were kids while innocently watching Bugs Bunny cartoons.

“It was Bugs Bunny who first taught me about Wagner,” confessed judge Rob. “That snagged me early on, and The Rabbit of Seville was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Judging Opera Idol was among the toughest challenges I have faced in my journalistic career. Fortunately, the winner was decided by having the audience stuff tickets into ballot boxes sporting photos of the singers’ faces.

The shining moment came when the six finalists squared off in Round 2. At one point, the pianist began to play and, a few seconds later, a soaring voice echoed from the back of the church as 27-year-old Aaron Hutton, the only guy in the competition, strode from the shadows belting out Lonely House, a song about loneliness from the American opera Street Scene written by Kurt Weill.

I felt sad when the Blue Jays choked, but not nearly as sad as I felt hearing Aaron’s rich, plaintive voice. It was a showstopper and the crowd jammed into the pews erupted with delight as the final notes faded.

“I think he just won it!” Rob chirped in my ear as the audience roared. And he was right. Not long after, the Minnedosa-born Hutton, who earned a music degree from the University of Manitoba in 2011, was crowned the city’s first-ever Opera Idol.

“It’s pretty cool,” Hutton gushed moments after his victory, which earned him $400 and a role in Flipside’s coming season. “I’m really glad I got to sing that second aria (Lonely House). I wanted to do something different than just stand at the piano, which is an opera stereotype. I feel really good. I felt I nailed it.”

He was undaunted being the only guy in the field. “I felt good about that,” he said. “I don’t know why more men in the city didn’t enter the competition. It was a great opportunity to perform before a live audience. It was a group of fantastic female singers, but I offered something different. It took a bit of pressure off being the only man.”

The evening ended with a heart-felt plea by the organizers for everyone to get off their backsides and go and check out the opera, any opera. As an expert judge, I couldn’t agree more.

And I think, if we look deep in our hearts, we’ll discover that Bugs Bunny feels the same way, too.


Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.


Updated on Monday, October 19, 2015 7:31 AM CDT: Adds photo

Updated on Monday, October 19, 2015 3:19 PM CDT: Corrects name of Judy Oatway

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